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UCLA suspends its Willed Body Program

Johnson & Johnson admits buying tissue samples

Henry Reid, the director of UCLA's Willed Body Program, was arrested Saturday.

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Anyone concerned that parts of a family member's donated body were sold should contact UCLA by phone at 866-317-6374 or by email at 

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Top officials at UCLA Tuesday voluntarily suspended the university's Willed Body Program after accusations that its director and others sold body parts for profit, a lawyer for the school said.

The announcement came as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to halt the program.

The order was issued one day after a class-action lawsuit was filed by families of donors who allege parts of their loved ones' remains were illegally sold for profit.

Louis Marlin, an attorney for UCLA, said the university's decision to suspend the program was effective immediately, and hinted that it's possible the program won't be restarted.

"A decision has not been made," Marlin told reporters, adding that university officials "had grave concerns" about several aspects of the Willed Body Program.

Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Mitchell granted the temporary restraining order, ruling that the bodies already being used in UCLA's gross anatomy lab will be stored, accounted for and not disposed of pending further order of the court.

Bodies already in storage must remain there intact and not be used by medical students. Records of the bodies the school already has must be turned over to the plaintiffs, the judge ordered.

Also, the university must send living donors a letter explaining that the program has been suspended, and school officials must immediately stop accepting new remains.

Allegations and arrests

Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, said one of its subsidiaries purchased human tissue from a middleman authorities accuse of obtaining body parts from the program's director. But the company said it did not know the tissue samples were inappropriately obtained.

The Willed Body Program's director, Henry Reid, was arrested Saturday "for illegal activities involving the commercialization of human remains," or selling body parts, authorities said.

Reid, 54, is alleged to have sold the parts to Ernest Nelson, 46, who was also arrested. Nelson allegedly then sold the body parts to other people, who were not identified, officials said.

Reid was charged with grand theft. He has posted bond and been released. His next court appearance is slated for March 30.

Nelson, charged with receiving stolen property, has posted bond and his next court date is scheduled for May 7.

Police said Monday more arrests are possible.

Raymond Boucher, the attorney for the families, condemned the companies that allegedly bought body parts from Nelson. He said he would file suit against Johnson & Johnson and several "Doe" companies, the names of which are not yet known.

UCLA's Willed Body Program receives about 175 donated bodies per year.

Johnson & Johnson sent CNN a statement about the allegation, saying it takes the matter of "using human tissue samples for medical research and education very seriously."

"We can confirm that one of our wholly owned business units, Mitek, contracted with Mr. Nelson in the 1990s for human tissue samples. Mitek did not knowingly receive samples that may have been obtained in an inappropriate way," the statement said.

Marlin said the problems came to light in the spring of 2003, when the California Department of Health contacted the school, saying that Nelson may have been marketing body parts that had not been tested for HIV and other diseases.

When asked about Nelson, Reid said the man was collecting body parts for a well-known orthopedic surgeon. Reid was ordered to get the parts back. The specimens were then cremated.

In their lawsuit, family members said they had contracts signed by university officials, guaranteeing their loved ones' remains would "never" be sold. The plaintiffs also noted the practice violates California State law.

Shirley Williams, whose husband Richard died of a stroke two years ago, was assured by UCLA officials that her husband's remains would be used in medical research, cremated and returned to her. Instead, Williams, the lead plaintiff in the civil suit, fears his body parts were sold for profit.

"My husband and I decided to give our bodies to the [Willed Body Program] with every confidence that things would be done properly, and now I find out that my husband's ashes were thrown into a rose garden and I don't even know where it is."

Williams, who attended UCLA, has decided against donating her body to the university.

"It has always been our intent to treat these people's remains with dignity and respect," said Dr. Gerald S. Levey, vice chancellor of UCLA Medical Sciences and dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. "Their contribution is beyond measure. These donations are motivated by their desire to support students and their education and so do something positive for the future of medicine."

In addition to being used by surgeons-in-training, the bodies are used by "virtually every department of the UCLA Center for Health Sciences," he said.

"These alleged crimes violate the trust of the donors, their families and UCLA," Levey said Monday. "We are deeply sorry."

Marlin vehemently denied allegations that university officials knew about the sales of body parts and turned a blind eye to the practice.

He called UCLA "a secondary victim of a crime," and said the university has been damaged also.

This situation was "kept hidden from us," Marlin said, adding that the school will cooperate with police to get to the bottom of the crimes.

This is not the first time UCLA's cadaver program has been under investigation.

Ten years ago, it was accused of mixing medical waste and animal remains with the ashes of human donors -- then disposing of them in a garbage dump, according to the suit.

In 1994, the school entered into a settlement agreement with the California Department of Health Services to restructure the program.

It was Reid who was brought in to clean it up.

"Tragically, the guardian is now alleged to be the mastermind," Mitchell said in court Tuesday.

"If corruption is at the top, who's watching?" he asked, weighing whether a new oversight program would help the cadaver donation department.

CNN producer Stan Wilson contributed to this report.

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