The Dodgy, Disorderly, Dangerous Trade in Human Tissues

By Sophie Bushwick | July 20, 2012 8:58 am

anatomical model

For many people, organ donation is an opportunity to use their own death to extend another person’s life. Hearts and lungs can be transplanted directly into another patient, while other tissues are first processed into medical products such as bone screws and skin grafts. But while repurposing human remains may be charitable, it is also an industry, an industry that sometimes prioritizes profit over safety and dignity.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has gathered information on the tissue trade for eight months, and published a disturbing exposé in the Sydney Morning Herald. The need for human body parts and lack of regulation means that not all tissue-derived medical products are obtained through legal channels, and not all remains are treated with respect.

In the US alone, the biggest market and the biggest supplier, an estimated two million products derived from human tissue are sold each year, a figure that has doubled over the past decade. It is an industry that promotes treatments and products that literally allow the blind to see (through cornea transplants) and the lame to walk (by recycling tendons and ligaments for use in knee repairs). It’s also an industry fuelled by powerful appetites for bottom-line profits and fresh human bodies.

In the Ukraine, for example, the security service believes that bodies passing through a morgue in the Nikolaev district, the gritty shipbuilding region located near the Black Sea, may have been feeding the trade, leaving behind what investigators described as potentially dozens of “human sock puppets” — corpses stripped of their reusable parts.

And robbing bodies of their parts without consent is not only a gross violation of the dead and their loved ones—it can also harm the living. Material from a diseased donor can transmit HIV, hepatitis, and rabies. Blood and intact organ donations are strongly regulated to prevent this contingency, but the medical products made from other human tissues do not face the same scrutiny. Because body parts often pass from country to country—harvested in Eastern Europe, processed in Germany, and shipped to the U.S. for distribution to 30 more countries—tracking an infected product back to its source can be well-nigh impossible. For more information about the tissue trade, read the Herald article or check out the ICIJ website.

Anatomical model image via Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • James

    Yes, far better that the blind continue to be blind and the lame continue to be lame, than people who can never again use their organs (because they are dead and don’t exist anymore) have them transferred to the needy and living, bringing with it an unspecified and, as far as I can tell, unmeasured risk of infection. I can understand why loved ones might be upset about a body being used in a way the deceased didn’t explicitly approve of, but the whole situation still fails to upset me.

  • Econ Grad Student

    Tangentially relevant: there is a niche economics literature on voluntary live organ donation. Most economists would take the “whatever two consenting adults…” view of voluntary organ sale, but that is illegal, so the question is how to coordinate organ donation efficiently (given blood type etc compatibility constraints). I have not worked in this area, only skimmed the literature. The most recent and low-jargon reference I can suggest is:

  • Jenk

    Agreed. Risk of disease? Yeah, maybe. The dignity of a corpse or the dignity of life, which is most important? Organ processing for the prematurely deceased should be a mandate so that you dont have people being drugged, robbed of their kidneys, and left in ice baths… and that is just the stereotype I’m sure many other godless things go on such as the impoverished selling their body parts or being murdered for them.

  • Igor

    Well, it upsets me because the people getting the transplant could get infected.

  • kirk

    I just had a hamstring from a corpse used to tie my shoulder back together. I did not suddenly feel the need to visit the grave of this corpse or to light a candle for him/her/it. I heard on NPR that ligaments are usually safe since they are cleansed. So… check the tissue for HIV and HepC and STFU.

  • Old Geezer

    Then again, if there were an adequately regulated, for profit, trade in pre-donated body parts, perhaps this black market trade would go away. Jack Daniels or Al Capone?

  • Iain

    The end does not justify the means.

  • Mike

    @James – so, if you have a daughter who died in a car accident, and at her funeral you noticed odd cuts on her wrists and torso, then you realized someone had, without consent, removed tissue from her body and sold it for profit, then sewed her back up and plopped her in a casket – you’d be OK with that? Great.

  • Jenk

    I’d like to agree with geezer but I don’t believe that “profit” and “donate” ever mesh together fluidly. As for Iain, even though that statement is widely touted whenever human lives are carelessly spent for some perceived greater good, that does not mean the greater good does not exist.. and even though we cling to the eloquence of statements with few words, the end has forever attempted to justify the means. Especially in this case when the means have already met their end!

  • Pvm

    To James,

    The further away you re from the situation, the more unaffected you will be.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar