Last week, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles Willed-Body Program was arrested for allegedly stealing body parts from the medical school. “Mr. Creepy Dude” says he cut up hundreds of cadavers and sold the pieces to large research corporations with the knowledge of UCLA officials. Evidently, the trade in human body parts is a booming industry thought to be worth half a billion dollars a year and growing.
The question is “How has the once noble scientific profession sunk to such lows in moral depravity and unethical conduct?” The answer is a tyranny of a new kind. This tyranny is that of a self regulated and ego-driven academic community of scientists who think themselves above laymen reproach and moral laws that bind the rest of culture and society. I know. I was there.
For six long years I worked in graduate school earning my Ph.D. in molecular and cellular pharmacology. Unexpectedly, an experience with the dark side of scientific research occurred as I neared the finish of my thesis.
Most people don’t know that to obtain a Ph.D. in science, candidates need to make a contribution to the body of science as a whole. That contribution often equates to a discovery of some kind. For me, the contribution was the discovery of a new protein expressed only in the developing brain.
After the discovery of this new protein, I entered the office of my mentor thinking all that was left was writing my thesis and a paper for publication. To my surprise, he chastened me for that presumption. Speaking critically, he said, “Scientific research was not intended to benefit animals, but people.”
The look of confusion on my face prompted his next instruction, which was to conduct a final experiment in search of the human counterpart to my newly discovered protein. He strongly suggested that this final experiment could secure publication in a more prominent scientific journal. (Until that point I only used animal models.)
My heart and shoulders sank with the idea of even one more set of experiments, but what he said made sense. So I asked what to do. He said to call the tissue bank across the street for fetal tissue; “you’ll need brain, heart, liver, lung and kidney.”
Ten minutes later I stood in a dimly lit laboratory staring into a large trunk-like freezer as the technician pulled out test tubes with the requested fetal tissue. I confirmed my order and shoved the samples into a bucket of dry ice I’d brought for transport. Tissue in hand, I bounded back to my own laboratory to finish the last of my thesis experiments.
Because I lived a predominately secular life at the time, I gave no thought to the source of that tissue or its moral implications. I was solely focused on completing my thesis work and receiving my Ph.D. In short order, I forgot the final experiments entirely.
I forgot, that is, until years later when I revisited the published text of my thesis. I flipped through the pages casually refreshing my memory of the work until I came to the final chapter. It was then with horror that I relived the final days of my research, realizing at long last what I had done. I realized for the first time my complicity in the vacuous immorality of the research I conducted and is conducted every day.
This rarely occurs. Too many scientists remain forever myopic with their focus on new discovery and the prestige it brings. Worse, to keep their hands clean and their positions secure, they sometimes deliberately and strategically place “yes men” in positions like my supplier, who was similarly situated to the director of UCLA Willed-Body Program.
In the UCLA case, lurking behind the prestigious title was nothing more than a non-academic technician trained as a mortician. He and others like him enter rooms of cadavers with a tray and a hacksaw. Bodies are dismembered; their parts are then sorted and sold to the tissue and organ bank industries. The body parts are then used for commercial research products and/or to supply colleagues in research (like me) with a ready supply of tissue for human experimentation. This is done with donated cadavers and obviously aborted babies.
The problem is that the world of scientific research is so competitive that few ever ask the source of human tissue. Most researchers are just grateful to obtain the tissue they need to get their research published.
So that’s the ethic behind this kind of work. There is none. There is only goal-oriented, deadline-driven or ego-driven obsession. Admittedly, there are some stop gap measures provided through limits in federal funding. There are, however, few if any limits on privately funded research.
The reality is that the incident at UCLA is a drop in the proverbial bucket of the black-market trade in human body parts. This is a dark but integral part of modern scientific research that goes largely unnoticed because it is cloaked by the fancy titles, sterile labs and white coats of the academic elite.