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University proposes barcodes on cadavers

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Shaken by scandals involving the black-market sale of body parts, University of California officials are considering inserting barcodes or radio frequency devices in cadavers to keep track of them.

The high-tech fix is one of a number of overhauls the University of California is proposing to reassure people that bodies donated to science will be used as intended and treated with respect.

"We want these to be programs that really do work, so we can maintain the public trust and know that we are doing everything possible to maintain and respect the great donation that these gifts represent," said Michael Drake, UC vice president for health affairs.

Every year, thousands of bodies are donated to US tissue banks and medical schools. Skin, bone, and other tissue are often used in transplants. New medical treatments and safety equipment such as bicycle helmets are tested on body parts. And cadavers are used to teach medical students surgical skills and anatomy.

But there is also an underground trade in corpses and body parts, despite federal laws against the sale of organs and tissue.

"There's more regulations that cover a shipment of oranges coming into California than there is a shipment of human knees that are going from a body parts broker in one state to Las Vegas," said Dr. Todd Olson, director of anatomical donations at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

At UCLA, the willed body program was suspended by court order last spring after the director and another person were arrested in an investigation into the selling of body parts for profit. The investigation is continuing, and no charges have been filed.

In 1996, donors' families sued the university, charging that the program had illegally disposed of thousands of bodies by cremating them along with dead lab animals and fetuses and dumping the ashes in the trash.

In 1999, the director of the program at UC-Irvine was fired after being accused of selling spines to a Phoenix hospital. The university also was not able to account for hundreds of willed bodies. The director denied wrongdoing and was not prosecuted.

Some people who had agreed to leave their bodies to science withdrew their offers.

In response, the university has proposed a series of overhauls, some of which are in place. They include a better records system, electronic locks, and surveillance cameras.

Officials also are considering putting barcodes or radio frequency devices in cadavers that could be read by someone walking past the body with a hand-held device. Radio frequency identification tags are used by cars passing through automated toll plazas. UC officials said that they are working out the details but that any body parts that became separated from the corpse probably would be tagged, too.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has not heard of such devices being used to keep track of cadavers. He said a thief might be able to remove a barcode, and he warned that the new equipment has to be backed up by human oversight.

The UC Board of Regents is expected to review the plan this spring. University officials will decide in March whether to ask a judge overseeing lawsuits filed by donors' relatives for permission to reopen the 55-year-old willed body program at UCLA, which was receiving about 175 donated bodies a year before it was suspended.

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