Report Finds Lax Oversight of UC Cadaver Programs

Times Staff Writer

Several University of California medical schools used the same lax practices that left UCLA vulnerable to the theft of cadavers, according to a report aimed at preventing more scandals involving bodies donated to science.

The state’s five willed-body programs, which take in a total of about 870 cadavers each year, were generally run by employees who worked with little oversight and insufficient controls, the report showed.

The way cadavers and body parts were allocated and tracked varied widely depending on the campus.


Dr. Michael Drake, UC’s vice president of health affairs, said in an interview that the universities have largely relied on the good intentions of employees rather than built-in safeguards to prevent wrongdoing.

“These systems, like many systems, were vulnerable to nefarious activities and unscrupulous activities,” he said. “UCLA was [a] victim of that.”

The inconsistencies among the UC campuses are part of the wide variation in how willed bodies are handled across the country, according to anatomists.

At many medical schools, professors have little to do with procuring bodies, preserving them and keeping records. Those jobs often go to nonacademic staff members who trained as morticians or worked their way up the ranks.

“You have a problem when somebody works alone in the dark with no oversight,” said Ronn Wade, director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board.

At UCLA, the willed-body program has been shut since March, when authorities alleged that the director and an assistant had been stealing body parts and selling them for profit. Some parts were traced to biomedical companies.


After the scandal became public, the UC administration hired Navigant Consulting Inc. to help fix the system. The consultants’ report was obtained by The Times through a Public Records Act request.

The report points to a need for more sophisticated locks on cadaver labs, better consent forms for donors and more freezer space for specimens -- changes that UC officials plan to make in the next year.

UC officials already have announced plans to use electronic implants to track cadavers and to create a post in the central administration to watch over the cadaver programs.

However, Drake said, campuses will not lose all autonomy.

For example, UC San Diego will continue to harvest brains -- which must be done soon after death -- before cadavers can be tested for infectious diseases.

And UC San Francisco and UC Davis have no plans to stop authorizing the release of body parts to other universities and biomedical companies -- a practice that has allowed the UC San Francisco program to be self-sustaining for at least the last decade.

UC Irvine now has the tightest controls systemwide. Its rules came about as a result of a 1999 scandal that began when an audit showed that the director of its willed-body program had sold spines to a Phoenix hospital for $5,000 each. He was fired but never prosecuted.


UC Irvine installed an electronic records system and a chain of authority that went up to the dean. It is the only school with cameras in its laboratory and the only one to conduct unannounced inventories of its cadavers and body parts.

UC Irvine and UC Davis are the only schools that take photographs of donors.

In creating systemwide standards, Drake said, “We’ve tried to build on what UCI did.”

Over the last decade, the demand for body parts -- by biomedical firms, pharmaceutical companies, surgeons training in new techniques and educational institutions without their own programs -- has soared.

It is illegal to earn money from the sale of human body parts, but the law allows suppliers to charge “reasonable” fees to recover costs. As the demand for parts has risen, so have the prices.

One supplier, the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine, in Jessup, Pa., charges $2,100 for a torso with head and $887 for a whole arm with shoulder, according to a price list included in the UC report.

Such demand has created the temptation to illegally profit from donated bodies.