The UCLA medical school announced Tuesday that it would indefinitely suspend, and perhaps permanently close, its body-donor program in response to a burgeoning scandal over the allegedly illegal sale of hundreds of cadavers.
The decision by top medical school and university administrators came amid a court hearing in which lawyers representing relatives of cadaver donors sought to force the closing of the program, arguing that it was in such disarray it could not function properly.
UCLA had contended, both in court papers and at a news conference Monday, that closing the program, the oldest in the nation, would impair medical education and research.
But officials abandoned that position as disclosures mounted about the scope of the scandal.
“Partly because it’s gotten so much widespread negative press, it seemed like it maybe made better sense” to suspend the program than operate it under a cloud, said Dr. Alan G. Robinson, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for medical sciences.
In other developments Tuesday, a major pharmaceutical company, Johnson & Johnson, acknowledged that a subsidiary had bought body parts from UCLA cadavers through a middleman, Ernest V. Nelson, who was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of receiving stolen property.
The subsidiary, Mitek, “did not knowingly receive samples that may have been obtained in an inappropriate way,” Johnson & Johnson said in a written statement. “We are sensitive to the need that all samples are appropriately and properly obtained, stored and shipped.”
Lawyers for the families of cadaver donors on Tuesday filed suit against Johnson & Johnson, alleging that the company should take responsibility for “accepting stolen parts.”
Medical school officials said they wouldn’t decide whether to reopen the willed-body program until they received suggestions from former Gov. George Deukmejian, who has agreed to oversee an administrative investigation and suggest reforms.
In the meantime, bodies that had been scheduled to go to UCLA were being sent to UC Irvine, which itself was embroiled in a scandal involving stolen body parts in 1999. At that time, the director was fired after allegedly selling six spines to a Phoenix research company for $5,000. Campus officials there say their program now runs well and they keep better track of bodies.
Phone calls to the UCLA program to report a death were being transferred to UC Irvine, said Michael Godsey, director of UC Irvine’s program. That campus received its first UCLA cadaver Tuesday, but Godsey said UC Irvine would not use the UCLA cadavers unless the families give them permission.
“The only services we’re providing is a place for the bodies to be taken and held in storage until the use can be determined,” Godsey said.
At UCLA, the bodies in the refrigerator will remain there under lock and key, officials said. They could not say how many there are.
Medical students will be allowed to continue their work on 25 to 30 cadavers now in the gross anatomy laboratory, but the program’s suspension will prevent new cadavers from being released, even within the university, for education or research.
UCLA officials said they would not need a new supply of cadavers for medical students until the fall and they were still trying to determine the effect of a long-term suspension or closure.
At the end of the academic year, “We’ll just have to see where we are,” Robinson said. “I don’t think I can predict where we’re going to be at the end of the year.”
He said the controversy had hit medical-school students particularly hard because they had been taught to respect the cadavers and treat them well.
The scandal at UCLA became public late last week, when the Times reported that two employees, Henry Reid, director of the willed-body program, and an associate, had been placed on leave amid suspicions they had sold bodies for personal gain.
Reid was arrested over the weekend, on suspicion of grand theft, as was Nelson, the middleman believed to have resold the cadavers to major research corporations. Nelson is suspected of receiving stolen property.
Reid, whose UCLA salary is $56,760 annually, has refused to talk to reporters. His associate, Keith Lewis, declined comment Tuesday.
Nelson told the Times he had cut up about 800 bodies over six years with the full knowledge and permission of the university. He contended he had done nothing wrong.
Although it is illegal to earn a profit on body parts, Nelson said he had simply been charging for his labor, storage and handling.
Nelson’s attorney on Monday showed the Times invoices on UCLA letterhead, apparently from Reid, charging Nelson more than $700,000 for 496 cadavers over six years.
UCLA has said it is not sure if the invoices are genuine and contends that its leaders knew nothing about the possible criminal activity.
Tuesday’s court hearing actually stemmed from another scandal -- and a resulting lawsuit filed in 1996.
The plaintiffs at that time alleged that UCLA had mishandled the remains of donors for several decades by taking their ashes, mixing them with medical waste and dumping them in a city landfill.
Before the disclosures of the past several days, Superior Court commissioner Bruce E. Mitchell had been expected to dismiss the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction requiring UCLA to treat cadavers with respect.
Mitchell had tentatively ruled that UCLA had fixed all the problems in its program and had turned it into a model operation under director Reid.
Mitchell said Tuesday, however, that he had been “misled” into believing Reid was a problem solver. He said that UCLA’s lawyers had been misled, too.
Reid was “the guardian of the trust,” Mitchell said in court. “The irony, the tragedy here apparently is that the guardian is alleged to have been the mastermind of the program.”
The commissioner cast doubt on whether UCLA could turn the program around. “The question is, what guardian are you putting in place now? Why is that going to be any different? Why is the new oversight system going to be better than the one you had before?
“In other words, if the corruption is at the top, who’s watching the top?”
Initially, attorneys for UCLA argued that the willed-body program should not be shut down, even temporarily.
“Ceasing all activities ... would cause material and potentially irreparable harm to those educational programs and students relying on cadaveric material,” Louis Marlin, an outside attorney for UCLA and the UC Board of Regents, wrote in a court filing submitted Tuesday morning. “The safeguards, procedures and actions taken ... are sufficient” to protect the program’s integrity, he said.
But after a break in the hearing, the medical school agreed to suspend the program voluntarily. Mitchell put those terms in a temporary restraining order that will remain in effect until at least the next court hearing, on April 13.
Raymond Boucher, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said he hoped UCLA would not restart the program.
“Given the black market in body parts and the terrible history of this program, I think it would be the wrong thing for UCLA to do to start it back up and ultimately it should make the decision to permanently shut it down.”
Boucher commended UCLA and its lawyers for “accepting responsibility for the program that frankly has been out of control for many years.”
But Boucher had harsher words for Johnson & Johnson and other companies that may have purchased stolen cadaver parts.
“We feel very strongly that the corporations who purchased these body parts -- illegal body parts -- should be held responsible for accepting stolen parts in violation of all of California’s laws,” said Boucher, one of the attorneys suing Johnson & Johnson on behalf of donors’ families.
Marc Monseau, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, said human tissue samples had been purchased from Nelson between 1996 and 1999 by Mitek, a company subsidiary based in Norwood, Mass. The subsidiary now is part of DePuy Mitek. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the transactions but declined to provide details.
Mitek makes surgical products for treating soft-tissue sports injuries, such as ligament and tendon tears. Cadaver parts are used in the development of products and for teaching doctors how to use them.
Dr. Dean Sotereanos, an orthopedic surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh who is a consultant for Mitek and has taught physicians there, called it “a very-by-the-book company.”
The trade in bones, fat and other tissue is virtually unregulated.
There are no requirements, for example, that such parts come with death certificates or documentation showing the donors have given consent for the parts to be used.
Times staff writers Jean Guccione, Jeff Gottlieb, Matt Lait and Scott Glover contributed to this report.