A single human cadaver donated to a for-profit company could end up in at least five different locales — six if you count the pieces of the body that weren't scooped up for research and were instead cremated and returned to the family.
Unlike the Colorado Anatomical Board, which embalms bodies, sends them to university and college classrooms, then cremates their remains and returns them, for-profit companies tend to break up bodies, cool them or freeze them, and ship them around to various research projects and training programs.
Knees might go to researchers looking at improving surgery techniques. The brain could go to a university looking into ways to detect Alzheimer's disease earlier. The heart could make its way to a program searching for methods to improve outcomes for certain valve problems. Lungs might go toward cancer research, or ocular tissue toward study of drug development. Some cells might even be made into slides.
Melinda Ellsworth, vice president of donor services for Science Care, possibly the largest such company in the country, says she offers an unusual product, but a necessary one.
"We are sort of the link between medical researchers that need different types of tissue — and again, most of it is segmented tissue, not the full body — and the consumers who want to donate their body to medical research," she says. "We try to maximize the intent of the donation by placing the donor tissues with as many projects as we can. Typically, it's five on average for each particular donor."
Science Care, which is headquartered in Arizona but has offices around the country, including one in Aurora, makes no guarantees about what parts of the body will be used or what they will be used for — it gets all kinds of requests from researchers and tries to match donors up with the programs that suit them best.
Like all such companies, it makes its money by charging for services like the transportation, storage and breaking up of bodies, not the bodies themselves.
Ellsworth's job is to convince more people to donate their bodies for science. Like the Colorado Anatomical Board, demand for Science Care's bodies outpaces supply.
"Nobody knows that this exists," she says. "This is a problem. We try — my whole job is to increase awareness in the public and we're still not there. A huge percentage of the donors that come through our program are from friend and family referral. It's our mission to deliver awesome service to families in a difficult time in their lives, and often a crisis time in their life, and in doing that we've been lucky and we've been fortunate to earn the respect of the family members. But getting the word out to the public is not easy."
Angela Hoffman, donor liaison for the smaller, Littleton-based Lonetree Medical Donation LLC, says her company works in a similar fashion. Lonetree works with many universities and the Department of Defense. It also has a shortage of bodies, working with perhaps 100 to 120 per year, when it could easily place one a day. Hoffman says that due to connections with the military, her company particularly needs fit, male donors — the type that mirror the average soldier. She also gets requests for donors that have atypical symptoms of common diseases, such as Alzheimer's.
Ellsworth says Science Care has been working to increase gifts from younger, and non-white donors. But it has a demand for just about any body. Science Care's only requirements are that the body be quite fresh, that the donor not have a contagious disease, that the body be in reasonably good condition (seriously traumatic deaths may cause too much damage), and that they not be morbidly obese (because of transportation considerations).
Ellsworth says about 50 percent of donors sign up for the program themselves, and the other 50 percent are donated by their next of kin. Sometimes, the donations are due to a loved one's wishes, or a connection to the medical profession. Other times, a family simply can't afford to cremate a loved one and thus donation is a good choice.
Both companies work with hospitals and hospices to inform people of the donation option.
Science Care sends donor families letters describing the types of research projects their clients are currently performing. The idea is to give family members a sense of the good that the donations have done.
That can be an important conversation, Ellsworth says, especially because while all of a donor's remains are eventually cremated, only the parts not used for science are returned in a box to the family — meaning the box might not have a lot in it.
"That's a great conversation to have because I can say, 'You know, your loved one was able to participate in so many projects, they were that valuable to the program,'" she says.
"'That's why the box is so light.'"