Tissue Recovery

By Willson, Kate | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Tissue Recovery


Willson, Kate, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Investigating entities that harvest human tissues

I don't speak German. I don't have sources within the South Korean Ministry of Health. I don't have the budget or the time to travel to a half-dozen cities across Ukraine. But there is a network that made this possible. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is a Washington, D.C. -based nonprofit with a staff of five. Yet our global ranks are filled with more than 160 of the world's best muckrakers in 60 countries.

Together we collaborate on in-depth transnational stories - providing stipends for freelancers, covering travel costs for reporters in the field, and relying on the enthusiasm of our members and the promise to share in a great story. Our projects stem from our members' work, from our own ideas and from whistleblowers. Once we complete a project, we offer the content for free to publications across the globe. Why do we give away a story that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce? We believe in providing the global community with investigative reporting even when the established media can't afford to fund it.

Our most recent story about the global trade in human tissues is a good example of how we operate. Last fall, Australian editor Gerard Ryle took on the job as ICIJ director. Soon after introductions he asked if I was interested in body parts. "What kinds of parts?" I asked. He wanted to probe into a little-known industry that uses musculoskeletal tissue such as skin and bone in manufacturing medical implants. The Orange County Register in California had done a stellar series in 2000 about the tissue trade in the United States. But the industry had grown and globalized. Ryle believed there was a story there. And he was right.

After eight months of interviews, records requests and data analysis our team found:

Laws in most countries make it illegal to buy and sell human parts. But a caveat allows some publicly-traded companies to turn a profit by charging ill-defined "reasonable payments" to compensate them for obtaining and handling the tissue and parts, which can be used in dental implants, transplants and coverings for burn victims. The number of players doing business in the United States has quadrupled since 2002.

Florida-based RTI Biologies and its German subsidiary Tutogen Medical obtained significant amounts of tissue from Ukraine. As we dug into the industry, we started to see a pattern. RTI and Tutogen have repeatedly obtained tissue from suppliers that were later investigated for stealing human parts. Four of those suppliers have been investigated for allegedly taking tissue after bullying families into signing consent forms or simply forging their signatures. Tutogen continued doing business in the country despite concerns raised in confidential corporate memos about the company's inability to track the money it sent into Ukraine or control middlemen in the country.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't changed the way it inspects tissue establishments' documents in spite of a global scandal involving a New York dental surgeon who stole body parts - some infected with HIV or sepsis - then filed forged, falsified and incomplete paperwork to his buyers.

The trade in human tissues is virtually untraceable at a global level. The United States is the world's primary supplier of human tissue, but U.S. officials don't track those exports. Nor can they systematically track tissue imported from overseas.

At ICI), we vet each potential project before calling on reporters in the field. I spent two months reading news stories, Congressional reports, and the website of the Food and Drug Administration - the U.S. agency tapped to police the trade. I filed more than 200 public records requests to the FDA, state agencies and public hospitals seeking records about the trade and safety of human tissue products. I talked to experts in the United States and Europe and reached out to high-profile felons and industry insiders. …

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