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Body parts thief was feeding a booming business

Body parts thief was feeding a booming business

Picture of William Heisel

A dentist drives through the dark alleyways of New Jersey in the dead of winter, visiting morgues where he cuts out bones, slices out tendons and peels off layers of skin from corpses. With coolers packed with human flesh, he then drives to a smoking factory where the body parts are turned into things that are put into other people's bodies, without them ever knowing.

Sound like the premise for one of those torture porn films - Saw, Hostel - that are so popular this time of year?

It's all true.

Worse still, it's a true-life sequel. The scene echoes a scandal that first broke in 1999 in a series called "The Body Brokers," co-authored by this writer. Back then, the company with the factory, LifeCell Corporation, was under fire for taking skin from dead people to be processed into plastic surgery products, at a time when burn centers across the country were suffering a dangerous shortage of skin to be used as a living bandage to help burn victims recover.


In 2005, LifeCell was in trouble again. This time, the New Jersey dentist, Michael Mastromarino, was indicted by the Brooklyn Supreme Court of 122 counts of "enterprise corruption" and other crimes that accused him and others of stealing bones, skin and other tissue from more than 1,000 corpses in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A story in The Washington Post at the time described the scandal nicely.

Mastromarino and his cohorts allegedly forged documents to conceal the fact that the tissue was not from willing donors and to change the ages of the deceased to make them appear younger and to hide that they died from specific diseases that would have made them ineligible for transplantation. Body parts were stolen from late "Masterpiece Theatre'' host Alistair Cooke. And some of the body parts ended up as far away as Australia. LifeCell's stock was punished by the scandal.

In January 2008, Mastromarino agreed to tell prosecutors what he knew about the murky body parts trade, and in March 2008, he pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption, reckless endangerment and body stealing.

And now here comes The Skin Merchant III.

LifeCell has always maintained that it was as much a victim of Mastromarino's deception as the families whose loved ones were plundered for parts. But the company has a history of not checking the origin of its tissue carefully enough.

This FDA enforcement report, dated Oct. 28, 2009, lists several of LifeCell's "regenerative tissue matrix" products that had been recalled.

PRODUCT

1) Repliform, Tissue Regeneration Matrix; 5 x 10 cm, .9-1.6 (mm); Order number 820245. Recall # Recall # B-1743-09;

2) GraftJacket, Regenerative Tissue Matrix; 5 x 10 cm, Non-Meshed, Standard, .89-1.40 (mm) Order number 702050. Recall # B-1744-09;

3) GraftJacket Maxforce-Extreme, Regenerative Tissue Matrix; 4x7 cm, 1.80-2.51 (mm) Reorder number: 702029. Recall # B-1745-09;

4) GraftJacket Regenerative Tissue Matrix Maximum Force, 5 x 5, 1.40 - 1.91 (mm) Reorder number: 702029. Recall # B-1746-09

The reason? "Human Skin, recovered from donors with incomplete donor eligibility assessments, were distributed." LifeCell recalled these same products in 2005 during the Mastromarino scandal for the same reason. The company could not accurately say that the donated bodies had passed the proper infectious disease and donor history screenings.

Why does it matter if the paper work for a body part is incomplete or missing entirely? Because these body parts can transmit diseases like hepatitis, AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

GraftJacket also made trouble for LifeCell before, in 2006, because of the way the company was marketing the product. And the potential blame doesn't stop with LifeCell. Read the enforcement report. LifeCell recalled the tissue, but the "manufacturer" is listed as the New England Organ Bank in Newton, Mass. And the products are distributed by Boston Scientific and Wright Medical Technology, among other companies.

This is a good example of what has become business as usual. These organ procurement organizations, like the New England Organ Bank, like to post pictures of fields of flowers on their Web sites and use phrases like "the oldest independent organ procurement organization (OPO) in the country." They are no longer independent. They have become front operations for for-profit tissue companies like LifeCell. After the publication of "The Body Brokers," the OPOs became slightly more transparent, posting notes like these on their Web sites:

Tissue recovered by New England Organ Bank is processed by a number of for-profit and non-profit organizations, including LifeNet, Tissue Banks International, Cryolife, and LifeCell.

But the overwhelming message of their marketing materials is: "Give the gift of life. Not: "Give us the raw material for our new product line."

Mastromarino's attorney told the court during his client's guilty plea that the dentist had "decided to cut corners in order to satisfy the increasing demand for business." That demand has not gone away. Is "incomplete donor eligibility assessments" a nice way of saying, "the guy who showed up in the alley with a box full of body parts didn't tell us where they came from"?

Someone should find out.

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