Page last updated at 07:45 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

How much is a human body worth?

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service

However distasteful it might be for some people, there is a legitimate demand for human organs, tissues and bodies, for use by academics and the medical profession.

Surgeons operating
Surgeons need to practise on cadavers before operating in a theatre

Anatomical examination involves human bodies to train students, surgeons and other healthcare professionals about the structure of the body and how it works.

Organisations in the UK which carry out these activities are licensed by the Human Tissue Authority.

People can decide in advance to donate their body or organs to medical science after their death.

No payment is made to the person who donates their body, nor to the estate of the deceased.

Niche market

In the US, however, there is an increasingly commercial element to this supply and demand, with not-for-profit corporations involved in the procurement of bodies.

They offer financial support to families of the dead, arranging for the processing and transport of bodies, as well as final cremation.

Professor Michel Anteby at Harvard University is concerned about how they operate.

"In the US, it is a felony to actually purchase or sell a body, human tissue or organs," he says.

Some of these ventures have become extremely successful and get more than 1,000 donations [bodies] a year
Prof Michel Anteby, Harvard University

"But the law excludes the payment for the removal, processing and preservation of cadavers."

Getting reimbursed for such services opens up a huge window for commerce.

"The US is a wonderful place to see entrepreneurs in action and this is what they have done," he maintains.

"About 15 years ago, some people decided that there was a niche for such services and these ventures have become extremely successful. Some of them get more than 1,000 donations a year."

Prof Anteby also points out that the commerce of cadavers is unregulated.

"Selling a house requires a licence, even selling candy at a state fair requires a licence, but no licence is required involving a cadaver."

Total package

Under US law, people can say they want to donate their bodies to science, or their next-of-kin can donate them after they are dead and non-profit organisations can accept these "anatomical gifts".

We expect to recover between $5,000 and $6,000 per cadaver
Brent Bardsley, Anatomy Gifts Registry

The Anatomy Gifts Registry charges fees for supplying bodies and tissues to medical companies and universities for applications in medical science and research.

"We have to offset our expenses, which include transportation of the deceased, the work that goes into obtaining the consent, the post-mortem procedures to determine the presence of contagious disease, the dissection and preparation of the body," says the registry's Brent Bardsley.

"We expect to recover between $5,000 and $6,000 per cadaver - either in its entirety or after the body has been divided," he says.

Fees are about 10% over and above the costs to enable the company to expand into on-site surgical training, where the public has a chance to visit the laboratory.

The company will also cremate unwanted parts afterwards at no cost to the family.

"We provide a portion of the remains back to the family within four weeks following the donation - these represent the body parts not used for research. Universities and medical centres may take up to two years," Mr Bardsley says.

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He dismisses any suggestions that his trade might be ghoulish or unsavoury.

"If you are injured, you expect to go to hospital and get the best care," he says.

"People take for granted how their surgeon became experienced to provide that good care. They would not be able to do it without cadaver donations," he explains.

"We maintain control of the dissemination of the tissues," he adds, "and we have to maintain that trust, otherwise people won't give us these gifts."

Body snatchers

Historically, physicians turned a blind eye towards the source of the bodies they acquired.

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts.

But such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical and private anatomical schools and by the 19th Century, only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year.

With the expansion of medical schools, however, 500 cadavers a year were needed.

The medical profession therefore turned to body snatching to supply the deficit of bodies fresh enough to be examined.

During 1827 and 1828 in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare changed their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, because they were paid more for very fresh corpses.

Their activities, and those of grave robbers in London who imitated them, resulted in the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832.

This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers - thus essentially ending the body-snatching trade.

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