Australia drawn into net of grisly illegal trade in harvested human tissue

Bodies in Ukraine are being plundered for their reusable parts, and may be ending up in Australian patients.

A MULTINATIONAL medical company in the US accused of manufacturing therapeutic goods from improperly harvested human corpses is distributing dental implants to Australian patients.

The bodies were allegedly plundered for reusable human tissue at forensic institutes in Ukraine. The parts were then transported to a German company, Tutogen, sometimes without the consent of the families of the deceased.

Ukrainian investigators say the grisly trade has left behind what they describe as ''human sock puppets'' - corpses stripped of their reusable parts.

Tutogen is a subsidiary of Florida company RTI Biologics, a leading provider of biological implants and listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Last year it turned over $US169 million.

At least 134 dental implants derived from human tissue and made by Tutogen/RTI have arrived in Australia since 2006, the company's local distributor has confirmed, including 52 in the past year.

The identity of the donors behind the specific implants is not clear, and RTI has declined to answer questions about its global practices.

Its spokeswoman, Rhonda Barnat, said: ''All tissue is recovered and processed under applicable regulations and is both safe and needed.''

Since 2002, police have conducted four big investigations into Tutogen's suppliers of body parts in eastern Europe, including a probe now under way in Ukraine.

The RTI/Tutogen dental implants are not strictly approved for use in Australia but have been imported for individual patients under a ''special access scheme'' monitored by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The revelations are part of a project examining the global trade in body parts. The project is run by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, to which The Age and the ABC's Four Corners have contributed.

The human tissue industry has boomed in the past decade, creating a growing appetite for fresh human bodies whose ligaments, bone, skin and eyes are processed, packaged and sold to surgeons around the world.

But the consortium has found the safeguards across the globe are inadequate to ensure all tissue is obtained legally and ethically.

In Australia, the industry is still nascent. The Age has found only a handful of ''biologics'', including bone glues and skin grafts, being sold here by commercial entities. Most products derived from human tissue used by Australian surgeons come from publicly funded bone and tissue banks.

But last year the National Health and Medical Research Council found that while the laws in each state generally prohibited the sale of human tissue, exemptions did ''exist in these laws, primarily for cost recovery in the processing of human tissue to be used for therapeutic purposes''.

In a paper published in October, it said: ''Products derived from human tissues are already being processed, exchanged and sometimes traded, including for profit, in Australia.''

The RTI/Tutogen products available in Australia are dental implants made from donated human bone and marketed under the brand name ''Puros''.

Since June 2006, the TGA said, there have been 106 importations of Puros Cancellous Bone Allograft, including 51 since May last year.

Zimmer, the local distributor of RTI's Puros dental products, confirmed RTI is the processor of the donated tissue grafts.

Dominica McCann, the company's legal counsel, said: ''Zimmer has no part in the donor sourcing or processing of any donated tissues that ultimately reach the market.''

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