Patients given bone transplants from corpse snatches
British hospitals are at the centre of an unfolding scandal after it has emerged that at least 40 patients have been given transplants using body parts plundered by a corpse-snatching ring.
The body of veteran BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke was one of more than 1,000 allegedly stolen from funeral parlours by an American mafia ring and sold for use in bone grafts.
It has now emerged that 25 UK hospitals bought tissue that had been snatched from corpses - prompting fears that patients could have been exposed to a range of diseases.
There are fears that the horrific practice could have exposed British patients to HIV, syphilis or other illnesses transmitted through contaminated body parts.
The scandal is reminiscent of earlier scares associated with transfusions and transplants.
Two years ago, thousands of people were told yesterday that they might have been infected with the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy through contaminated blood plasma products. There have also been scares about HIV and hepatitis C infection from blood products
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) yesterday named the 25 hospitals where potentially contaminated human body parts were grafted into British patients.
It revealed that 82 pieces of bone had been bought to be used in procedures such as hip and bone operations and were distributed to the hospitals by a Swindon-based firm called Plus Orthopaedics.
A spokesperson for the health watchdog said the risk of catching an infection from the stolen bones was 'negligible' as the bones had been sterilised. However, some of the affected patients have been contacted and offered screening for disease.
The scandal first surfaced last October when it was revealed that the New Jersey-based company Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS) had been selling bones, ligaments and skin for use in transplants allegedly removed illegally from corpses.
Bone is said to have been taken illegally from American corpses at funeral parlours without the deceased's prior consent and without the necessary checks to make sure the bodies were free of disease.
Mr Cooke, whose Radio 4 programme Letter From America ran for 58 years, died from lung cancer aged 95 last December. His bones were cut out and sent to BTS before he was cremated.
BTS boss Michael Mastromarino, who faces body harvesting charges, is said to have paid £500 per corpse. The company, which has been shut down, supplied bones and other body parts to the NHS.
Many of the bones supplied by BTS were recalled after its scavenging was uncovered.
The US Food and Drug Administration has warned that many patients could have been exposed to HIV and other diseased, but also insists the risk of infection is minimal.
The MHRA, which ensures medicines and medical devices are safe, has tracked down affected patients in the UK and alerted their doctors.
It initially thought 77 parts had been sent to the UK but has now revised the figure and increased it 82. A spokesman said it was not suggesting that all the parts were stolen or possibly infected but confirmed they did come from the US company.
They said that any risks to patients were low because of more stringent screening processes in the UK.
'We ensured that affected hospitals were contacted, advising them that the infection risk was negligible, so that clinicians could decide what advice they should give to their patients,' the spokesman said.
Plus Orthopedics UK, which supplied the parts in the UK, confirmed it had obtained tissue and bone from Regeneration Technologies Inc in the US, which was supplied by BTS.
It said in a statement: "RTI carries out vigorous sterilisation procedures on all the tissue before it is supplied to UK hospitals for implant surgery procedures.
"Plus Orthopedics is aware of recent allegations that one of RTI's suppliers in the USA (Biomedical Tissue Services) had not complied with consent procedures in relation to a small batch of tissue.
"These allegations are the subject of ongoing investigation by the US authorities."
But last night campaigners called for tougher controls on the import of human body parts into the UK.
Professor Stephen Wigmore, chair of the ethics committee of the British Transplantation Society said: "No one would want to think they'd received tissue from someone from whom it had been taken against their will.
"It's cases like this that highlight holes in the law."
The scandal has exposed a growing trade in bones and tissue which are harvested abroad and shipped to Britain.
Shortages of organs and tissue from this country have been blamed on the fall-out from Alder Hey and the Bristol babies scandal, where organs were removed without consent.
There are currently no laws governing the import and export of human body parts into the UK.
The Government organisation responsible for human tissue, the Human Tissue Authority, said yesterday that it does not known which countries import skin, bone and ligaments to Britain, nor does it know the quantities shipped in every year.
A spokesman added: "The HTA does not license the import and export of tissues and cells.
"The HTA does, however, require establishments storing tissue to have systems and operating procedures to allow an audit trail in case of an adverse event or incident, for example involving a patient. We also ask them to inform us if they import or export tissue and cells."
The scam was uncovered when the owner of a funeral home in Brooklyn, discovered records of the bone theft and called in police.
It was found that some corpses had bones removed and replaced with plastic pipes.
New York investigators say death certificates were doctored to make the dead out to have been younger and healthier than they actually were.
In the case of Mr Cooke, documents listed the cause of death as a heart attack and lowered his age to 85, investigators said.
Michael Mastromarino, the owner of Biomedical Tissue Services, and three others have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
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