Do You Know Where That Tissue Has Been?

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Don't worry, the doctor told Brian Lykins' parents, as he prepared to use cartilage from a cadaver to fix their son's knee. A million people a year have operations that use tissue from donated dead bodies. The nation's largest tissue bank had supplied this cartilage. It was disinfected and perfectly safe, he assured them. But it wasn't.

Four days after this routine, elective surgery, Lykins—a healthy, 23-year-old student from Minnesota—died of a raging infection.

He died because the cartilage came from a corpse that had sat unrefrigerated for 19 hours—a corpse that had been rejected by two other tissue banks. The cartilage hadn't been adequately treated to kill bacteria.

None of this broke a single federal rule.

And it could happen again today—likely is still happening today—because of shoddy practices by some in the billion-dollar body parts business and the lack of government regulation.

The industry is in the news because a New Jersey company is accused of scavenging corpses without families' permission and then selling those parts to tissue processors. But apart from this scandal, thousands more Americans each day are put at risk in more insidious ways by legitimate tissue suppliers.

A three-month investigation by The Associated Press found problems ranging from inadequate testing for potentially deadly germs to lack of a unified system for tracking tissues as they travel from donor to recipient.

At every step—from funeral homes, where the journey often begins, to hospitals and doctors' offices, where it ends with patients receiving the eyes, bones, skin and other parts of the dead—poor oversight invites abuse and creates danger.

Most tissue transplants involve reputable companies and do a lot of good. Olympic skiers, people who have lost eyesight and children born with bad hearts are among the millions who have benefited. But when things go wrong, the consequences are horrific.

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