Special Report: How and why Reuters purchased bodies for its investigation

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Reuters spent more than a year examining the workings of a multimillion-dollar industry that dissects, rents and sells the donated dead.

Such firms are sometimes called body brokers, but they prefer to be known as non-transplant tissue banks. They acquire, usually for free, bodies that have been donated to science. Then they often cut those bodies into pieces and sell the parts for hundreds or thousands of dollars each. The buyers are typically medical researchers, device makers and groups that train doctors.

As part of our examination, Reuters sought to determine the ease with which body parts might be bought – that is, whether or to what extent body brokers would vet possible buyers. The news agency also wanted to assess the condition of the specimens when they arrived to determine whether they would prove suitable for further research.

To purchase human body parts, Reuters reporter Brian Grow sent queries to body brokers from his work email account. He used his name and the name of his employer, Thomson Reuters. He did not volunteer that he was a journalist, although he would have identified himself as a reporter had he been asked. A simple Google search for Grow and Reuters would have identified his work as a reporter.

To help determine if brokers would try to verify the buyer or his bona fides, Grow supplied them with an address that is a “virtual office,” a location that Reuters rented for $101 a month. The virtual office came with a receptionist and a conference room. It was on the 19th floor of an office building in Minneapolis. A Google search of the address shows that it is advertised as virtual office space.

Grow sent queries for body parts to five brokers last year. Two did not respond. Two asked for more information about the purpose of the purchase. One broker, James Byrd of Restore Life USA in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered to sell a cervical spine and sent X-ray samples. Reuters purchased the cervical spine from Restore Life, and later bought two human heads from the same firm. Reuters did not pursue deals with other body brokers after those purchases.

To handle the cervical spine and two heads safely, legally and ethically, the news agency enlisted the guidance and assistance of one of America’s foremost experts on body donation: Angela McArthur, who directs the anatomy bequest program at the University of Minnesota. She volunteered her time.

McArthur serves on the leadership council of the American Association of Clinical Anatomists and has served as an expert for the American Association of Tissue Banks. She has assisted both national associations with the drafting of best-practices guidelines for donation programs.

A medical researcher and anatomist with a master’s degree in public health, McArthur examined the body parts for Reuters and provided secure and sanitary storage at the medical school’s anatomy facilities in Minneapolis.

To comply with Minnesota law, the initial email query included the name and address of a local crematory where final disposition of the remains would be done. The crematory was recommended by McArthur and is the contractor used by the University of Minnesota anatomy bequest program.

The body parts sold to Reuters were never handled by journalists. Reporter Grow accepted the packed boxes as they arrived at the virtual office and then handed them to a licensed mortician, who transported the body parts to the university lab for examination and storage.

Under Tennessee and Minnesota law, the sales and purchases were legal. Although laws expressly prohibit the sale of body parts transplanted from a dead person into a living one, most states are silent on the sale of body parts used for research or education.

The documents accompanying the specimens Byrd sent to Reuters did not identify the donors but did list their dates of death. By reviewing obituaries from those dates and that geographic area, Reuters tentatively identified one of the donors as Cody Saunders of Townsend, Tennessee. Byrd sold Reuters the man’s cervical spine.

To confirm the spine was from Saunders, Reuters had DNA testing done, comparing a sample from the spine to buccal swabs from Saunders’ parents. The samples were sent to the Forensic Science Program at Western Carolina University’s Department of Chemistry and Physics. The test showed that the spine belonged to Cody Saunders.

Reuters subsequently cremated the cervical spine at the wishes of the Saunders family, and Grow returned the ashes to the Saunders in Tennessee this month. The two human heads are currently being stored at the University of Minnesota lab.

Reported by Brian Grow and John Shiffman; Edited by Blake Morrison