Corpse Raiders & the
Market for Spare Parts
The FBI is investigating an underground network of human organ sales. Greece has been accused of illegally allowing the ‘harvesting’ of the heart of a dead U.S. Marine. And there’s suspicion that a black market is now a rising global reality. What’s going on?
Welcome to the brave new world of what you don’t like to think about the future. The flip side of modern medical research, which is developing ways to grow and regenerate cells, organs and limbs, is the gruesome traffic of body parts, with or without consent.
Guess who is more vulnerable to selling their bodies (not that way, you perv) for what can never be enough? the poor, naturally. Some would even say that, before its ban, the sale of human blood was a common form of earning cash for skid row denizens everywhere.
Well, even those heartless souls who’d invoke such a grim precendent are finding the mechanics of this new trade too much to stomach. But abstracting the heavy ethical implications, we may not be too far of such a nauseating prospect, in this age of everything has a price.
Not that everyone who could eventually afford such revolting trade would do it, let’s be clear. Morals have no particular attachment or relation to material wealth or lack thereof. Still, it’s unlikely that such a gruesome market would be able to flourish cash free.
Because, face it, money and privilege are the obvious candidates to at least entertain such a possibility. But before we go to far down this rotten route, let’s praise the less Frankenstein-tinged use of medical technology which has, in reality, made great strides.
For over 100 thousand Americans, the prospect of a brand new industry focused on developing organs and other ‘components’ of the human flesh and blood machine from stem cells, for instance, is not just exciting, but a source of hope for a radically better life.
Research into nursing cells that will grow to build different organs is far advanced, and has fortunately crossed the phony moral threshold of religious concerns. Demand is overwhelming, which shouldn’t surprised anyone: the U.S. needs more than any other country fresh new organs.
The reason: war, of course. In fact, a considerable percentage of Veterans returning from tours of duty – courtesy of the Pentagon and its steady shipment and deployment of American troops all over the world – are in desperate need for limbs and reconstructive surgery.
As it turns out, restoring at least partially their physical integrity is the relatively easier stage of their lifelong rehab process. And medical technology has responded with incredible speed to the challenge. Cue in the flesh-printing machines of the near future.
For better or mostly for worst, the theater of war has been an active laboratory of breakthroughs in the technology of wound dressing, for example, since Alexander times. And as with the superglue, originally developed to bind skin together, who knows what the new spray-in skin technique will add to our civilian life too?
Dr. Stephen Badylak, at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, leads a research team that’s developed what’s called extracellular matrix: a cluster of pre-nurtered cells applied directly to a wound to heal it by continuing its grow process at the spot. It’s a ‘biologic scaffold material,’ he says.
SELLING & PRINTING KIDNEYS
Dr. Anthony Atala at Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, on the other hand, is working on applying one of the most amazing inventions of the 21th century to the medical field: a printing machine that instead of using ink, uses cells to build organs. Kidneys, if all goes well.
It won’t happen tomorrow, but his team has already built tiny kidneys, capable of producing diluted urine. Such focus on an organ that usually comes in pairs in the human body may have a dual purpose, in the future: besides becoming a viable way of healing the sick, it can also help end the shameful traffic of human organs throughout the world.
After all, a kidney currently goes for some $140K, only a part of which finds its way into the donor’s pocket. Or his or her family. Mostly, it’s the profit that middlemen earn for their shady enterprise. By the way, a heart is estimated to fetch almost $2 million, but that’s not something one can spare easily.
Wealthy recipients on the other side of this trade are usually anonymous, powerful and so desperate to live that they’re known for cutting ethical corners to get what they need. That’s when scary organ traffickers hit the jackpot, and many an unwittingly victim meets his or her untimely demise.
Ironically, even this horrifying reality that goes on in dark corners of Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and, yes, the U.S., is the result of yet another medical breakthrough of the past few decades: strong anti-rejection drugs that allow transplant patients to survive much longer than before, even if living far from normal lives.
The FBI investigation in Detroit uncovered in December a network of body donation centers that would do business all over the country. In only one center, the feds ‘removed body parts of 1,000 different people that were cut up — arms, legs, and heads that were not embalmed, but kept on ice for the market,’ according to News Net 5.
THE GHOULISH & THE SUBLIME
The family of U.S. Marine Sgt. Brian LaLoup is suing the government of Greece, after it found out that the LaLoup, who shot himself in 2012, had been buried without his heart. It later became clear that his organ had been harvested without consent, and sold to an unknown recipient.
Europe seems to be a thriving ground for illegal organ trading and governments have been at lost to prevent the trend from growing, at least for as long as they remain incapable of preventing rising poverty levels throughout the continent, which directly feeds the trade.
The issue of poverty and unemployment pops up ever so casually when the discussion gravitates around the commerce of the human body. Obviously, no matter how bad is for some having to resort into selling their bodies, whole or parts of it, are still better off than those whose organs are simply stolen by despicable thieves.
It’s one’s hope that this gory and cruel side of the issue of organ exchange won’t completely dominate the promising field of bio-technology, which has already proven its worth. Just look at the beautiful, albeit expensive, field of replacement limbs, and how far it goes into doting an amputee with a renewed sense of physical wholeness.
The Alternative Limb Project is one such company, manufacturing arms, hands, legs and feet, either hyper-realistic or, if the customer prefers, ultra robotic looking, all fully bio-technologically functioning, that’s been in the vanguard of a beneficial industry that caters to the needs of victims of body disfiguring events.
ARMEAR & THE FOREHEAD NOSE
Short of becoming a luxury for those who can afford it, that kind of enterprise has an enormous potential of meeting way more than a demand for replacement limbs. It can also bridge the gap that’s keeping hundreds of thousands of the physically handicapped from having fulfilling, productive lives.
In the meantime, research on growing and/or recovering organs and body features on the very patient, to his or her own benefit, continues to make astounding progress. Recently, doctors were able to save a Chinese man’s severed hand by attaching it, temporarily, to his own ankle. Later, they successfully transplanted it to its proper spot.
Also in China, another man had a new nose constructed and grown on his own forehead, after he’d lost his original to an infection. And in Baltimore, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital were able to a build a new ear on a woman’s arm, after cancer robbed her of, as Seinfeld’s Kramer would put it, her ‘valuable attachment.’
Pictures of these procedures are borderline scary, and tabloids usually have a field day publishing them. But behind the hype, there’s a legitimate need to develop faster techniques, using the host’s own body to nurture even more than hands, noses and ears. It all goes back to ‘teaching’ stem cells to build organs.
When doctors in Japan developed a set of tiny, rudimentary livers, that once transplanted to mice, ‘grew, made human liver proteins, and metabolized drugs as human livers do,’ as NYTimes’ Gina Kolata reported, they’d followed what seems to be a much healthier way of dealing with organ shortage.
On this path, along with a universal, socialized medicine model, it’s fair to dream that one day no one will have to sell their vital organs to eat, or worse, be robbed of them by shady raiders, who don’t seem to have the finesse to wait until the donor passes away, before doing their sinful deeds.
The picture of someone with a face ‘attachment’ that doesn’t normally belongs there may be scary. But much scarier and downright disgraceful is the prospect of thousands of impoverished people being farmed for their vital organs and bodies, to an elite who can’t accept that their time has, or should have, come.
* Meat Market
* Not Human
* The Red Market