Exclusive: Dutch hospitals to drop U.S. body brokers, cite ethical concerns
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Two major Dutch hospitals say they will stop importing human body parts from American firms, which they have been doing without any regulation for a decade.
The hospitals told Reuters in recent weeks they made their decisions on ethical grounds. The move comes amid investigations by U.S. law enforcement into some so-called body brokers – companies that obtain the dead, often through donation, dissect them and sell the parts for profit.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that one broker under scrutiny by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation – Portland, Oregon-based MedCure – has used a Dutch hub to distribute tens of thousands of kilograms of human body parts across Europe since 2012. U.S. authorities suspect MedCure sold body parts tainted with disease to American and foreign customers, a concern triggered in part by such shipments to Canada and Hong Kong, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Reuters found that importers of U.S. body parts included two Dutch hospitals. The news agency uncovered no evidence body parts used in the Netherlands were infected, but the Dutch hospitals said they would drop the suppliers in response to reporting by Reuters which raised questions about how the brokers acquired body donations.
The country’s largest hospital, Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center (AMC), said it bought between 300 and 500 heads from U.S. brokers, which in the past included MedCure, to cover a shortfall. The parts, used for research and training courses, were bought as early as 2008 and as recently as Nov. 21, the hospital said.
Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam said it bought knees and shoulders from a U.S. supplier but declined to provide details. The hospital said it used the parts for research and training courses which were not designed to make profits.
The health ministry declined to comment on the hospitals’ decision, and said there is no specific regulatory body which oversees the use of such samples.
From 2012 to 2016, according to manifest records reviewed by Reuters, MedCure shipped body parts valued at a total of more than $500,000 from the United States to the Netherlands. MedCure said it helps connect donors and scientific, research and medical entities. “We are an accredited and regulated institution and adhere to the best-in-class industry standards for safety ethics, and transparency,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.
Dutch laws govern the use of donated organs, the transportation of bodies and cremation, but there are none pertaining to body parts used for training or research, Dutch Minister for Medical Care Bruno Bruins told parliament in April.
The health ministry said it saw no need to regulate the trade in body parts because hospitals take precautions.
In the Netherlands and much of Europe, people who bequeath their bodies to research do so as a charitable donation, with no payment involved. In the United States, many brokers offer donor families free cremation in return for donating a body – a potential saving of up to $1,000.
AMC’s current supplier Science Care, one of the largest body brokers in America, is not under FBI investigation, the company told Reuters; an FBI spokeswoman said policy prevents the agency saying whether a company is or is not being scrutinized. But Science Care’s business model rankles some Dutch lawmakers and doctors.
Freek Dikkers, the professor of ear, nose and throat medicine at the AMC whose department bought the heads, said it was stopping after learning that the company solicits donors at hospices and old age homes and that its former owners earned millions from the trade. Dikkers said that was “unacceptable.”
One frozen head from Science Care that passed through Dutch airport customs belonged to a 53-year-old who died in April 2017 after treatment to remove a brain tumor. Although the declared value of the head on the customs form was $25, the going rate for a human head in the U.S. market is currently around $500, Reuters found. Science Care did not respond to a request for comment about the price of body parts.
Neither of the hospitals would say how much they paid for the parts. The heads were used, sometimes multiple times, to train young doctors before they operated on live patients, said Dikkers.
“It was a rising trend in recent years, initially around 30, and then increasing to 50 (per year), in four shipments,” he said in an interview with Reuters and Dutch TV program Nieuwsuur.
The AMC said documents provided by U.S.-based brokers indicated the heads the hospital bought tested negative for disease. A hospital spokeswoman said it had not carried out its own tests, but doctors always wear protective clothing.
Science Care said it follows all regulations and has been accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). The company uses “an extensive medical screening process for our donors, including testing for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, and HIV-2, to reduce potential risks.” All specimens are packaged and shipped according to international standards, it said.
The Rotterdam hospital, Erasmus, said it imported body parts – mostly sample knee and shoulder joints – for orthopedic surgery courses. It declined to say how long it has imported the parts, which company or companies supplied them, or how many it has bought.
Even though the hospitals say they plan to stop using the U.S. suppliers, the business of sending body parts through the Netherlands continues.
Rhenus Logistics, a Dutch company, transported and stored body parts for MedCure between 2015 and 2018. The contract ended this year, said Rhenus spokeswoman Ellen Visser, when MedCure set up its own Dutch distribution hub.
A month later, a new company was established in the Netherlands: Rise Labs, with three people affiliated to MedCure listed as board members. From two addresses in Amsterdam, it offers “services to donors leaving their whole body and providing services to medical professionals working in the field of anatomical research.”
The company did not respond to requests for comment. A receptionist at one Rise Labs’ address did not open the door when a reporter called for comment. MedCure declined to comment.