Stolen heads shed light on the donation of body parts

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March 10, 2022 – Not a typical theft, but it’s definitely one that catches your eye.

Last weekend in Denver, thieves broke into a parked truck and stole a blue and white box labeled “exempt human specimen.” It turns out that those particular specimens were donated human heads.

As Denver police continue their search for the stolen goods, many are wondering how the donated heads — and other body parts — are purchased and used in the first place.

In this case, the box of heads was directed to a company called Science Care, based in Phoenix, AZ. The company markets itself as the world’s leading authority on body donation, connecting donors and pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, educational institutions and healthcare organizations. In this case, the stolen box was returned to Science Care after medical training.

“Science Care connects donors who choose to donate their bodies to science with medical researchers and educators around the world, leading to medical research and education that improves the quality of life for all of us,” said said Tricia Hammett, CEO and program director at the company. “As the world’s first accredited non-transplant tissue bank, we pride ourselves on compliance and safety in everything we do.”

It is important to understand the difference between this type of donation program and the organ and tissue transplant industry. The latter is federally regulated and works to locate and transport organs and tissues for the more than 100,000 Americans on the national transplant waiting list. The first type of program remains largely unregulated and is not involved in transplantation.

Instead, tissue donation without grafting can lead to many different outcomes. An example is to take tissue from cadavers and use it for medical and surgical purposes. Consider ACL repair, in which a cadaver tendon replaces the damaged living ligament, giving the recipient a new lease on knee health. Or harvest veins from cadavers to use in heart bypass surgeries. Both are common and provide a better quality of life.

Other uses of cadaver tissue include medical research and education. Medical schools depend on these donations to educate their students. Research institutes work with donated human tissue to advance treatments for a host of medical conditions. These can include a variety of types of cancer, heart disease, orthopedics, and even mental health. Using organ and body part donations, surgical medicine students can also learn how to perform organ and tissue transplants, practicing their skills on the donated parts before moving on to actual life-saving procedures.

Donated tissues can also play a role in the development of medical and surgical devices, and even robotics for medical purposes. This can lead to less invasive procedures, with faster recovery times, and can be applied to a host of surgeries.

So about these stolen human heads, in particular, how could they be useful to science? Researchers could use them to study human brains to advance the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Or scientists could study brain tissue to better understand how the brain regulates emotions or learning.

Robberies like the one in Denver remain rare, and the investigation continues somewhat under the radar due to its sensitive nature. Hammett says the company is working closely with Denver authorities for a resolution: “We are doing everything we can to locate the stolen tissue and protect the community.”

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