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Man sues over cadaver bone transplant
By Deborah L. Shelton
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/26/2006

A Metro East-area man has sued Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Washington University and three tissue processing companies claiming that bone he received in spinal surgery was illegally harvested from a corpse and not screened for infectious diseases.

The suit was filed Monday in St. Louis Circuit Court on behalf of Glenn Wetzler, 48, a production supervisor who lives in Hecker, Ill.

The companies named in the suit were Biomedical Tissue Services Ltd. of Fort Lee, N.J., Regeneration Technologies Inc. of Alachua, Fla., and Medtronic Inc. of Minneapolis.

The suit alleges that the cadaver bone was illegally procured sometime between early 2003 and September 2005 and was distributed and sold by the three companies

According to the suit, Biomedical Tissue Services "entered into nefarious agreements with funeral homes to surreptitiously harvest corpses entrusted to the funeral homes."

The suit alleges that Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine failed to ensure that the tissue was safe before it was transplanted.

Lawyers also contend that no consent was obtained from the donor or members of the donor's family.

Spokeswomen for Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University said Tuesday that attorneys had not seen the suit and would not comment on pending litigation.

A spokeswoman for Regeneration Technologies said the company had no comment. Medtronic did not respond to requests for an interview. No one could be reached Tuesday at Biomedical Tissue Services, where the phone was disconnected.

Cadaver bone was transplanted into the base of Wetzler's neck in surgery in May of last year. A herniated disc was removed in the surgery and Wetzler's cervical spine was fused using the donor bone and a titanium plate.

"Our client went in for a routine operation and now has a large piece of bone in his neck that may have come from someone who had AIDS or hepatitis," said Burton Newman, a lawyer from Clayton who is representing Wetzler. "His doctor said the cadaver from which our client got the bone died from AIDS."

The suit follows a number of incidents nationwide involving body parts and the human tissue industry.

Biomedical Tissue Services and Regeneration Technologies have been in the spotlight recently since the daughter of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke said his body was sold and harvested for donor tissue without the consent of his family.

A Food and Drug Administration official said earlier this year that an agency investigation of Biomedical Tissues Services "revealed serious and widespread deficiencies" in the company's manufacturing practices. The official said the agency had reason to believe that allowing the firm to manufacture tissue products would "present a danger to public health by increasing the risk of communicable disease transmission."

Last October, the FDA ordered a recall of tissue distributed by Biomedical Tissue Services, and in January, it ordered the company to stop manufacturing tissue products altogether. The recalled tissues were human bone, skin and tendons.

Regeneration Technologies conducted a voluntary recall in October of all unused tissue it had bought from Biomedical Tissue Services.

The FDA said 25,000 tissue products had been sent to five processors, which distributed the products in all 50 states and overseas.

The FDA and Centers for Disease Control are investigating reports of tissue recipients' testing positive for HIV, hepatitis and syphilis to determine if they were infected by transplanted tissue.

Four employees of Biomedical Tissue Services were charged in an indictment in February and have pleaded not guilty to charges of enterprise corruption, body stealing and opening graves, unlawful dissection, forgery and other counts.

Wetzler got a call in December from his doctor, who was not named in the suit, asking him to return for tests to determine if he had contracted an infectious disease.

"It was the first time he learned that cadaver bone inserted in his neck during surgery may have contained viruses or bacteria," Newman said.

To date, tests have been negative.

But Newman said Wetzler, who has been married for 30 years, has had to undergo additional medical procedures and suffers from severe depression.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

dshelton@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8203
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