Blockchain Transactions, RFID and More: 7 Security Tips to Help Regulate the Cadaver Trade

September 3, 2019
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4 min read

While sitting in metaphysics class one afternoon, I asked my philosophy professor if Frankenstein’s monster is really a monster if he is just the sum of other people’s parts. He gave no reply to this question, only laughed.

This memory struck me when I was thinking about a topic that is both interesting and very weird, and one that poses great ethical concern: nontransplant donation centers, also known as body brokers.

Surgeons, doctors, medical specialists and researchers require real human cadavers to practice on, because no silicon dummy, computer simulation or electronic mannequin can provide an adequate learning experience; they need real tissues, bones and organs.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, medical schools could not find enough cadavers, so they hired individuals to sneak into cemeteries, dig up the corpses buried there, load them onto carts, conceal them and smuggle the carts back to the medical schools under cover of darkness. This practice earned those individuals the moniker “body snatchers.”

The process to provide cadavers today is a little different, but not by as much as you’d think.

What Are Body Brokers?

Body brokers are businesses that purport to connect medical schools, surgical residents, forensic specialists, medical researchers and other medical professionals with the cadavers they need through donors who wished to have their remains donated to science. It seems like a simple plan, but it gets weird. Real weird.

There are no state-level laws or codes that regulate who can start a business as a body broker, and there are no federal laws or regulations that specify how the brokers should receive, catalog, inventory or transport the donations they receive, or how to organize and manage the supply chain of cadaver parts.

Instead of nicely designed scientific warehouses, with shelves neatly labeled, cadavers and parts nicely tagged and organized, these facilities are often chaotic, messy and unpleasant, to say the least. According to a Reuters report, an FBI raid of a cadaver warehouse and the subsequent task of transporting bodies into an industrial freezer caused at least one agent to experience PTSD.

Much like the field of forensic pathology, the cadaver business is not for the squeamish. In addition to the ick factor these images conjure up, that is no way to manage a business or treat the remains of a loved one.

7 Security Mechanisms to Help Manage Cadaver Donations

Obviously, body brokers pose a serious moral and ethical dilemma, not to mention a host of security concerns, and medical institutions should be careful to avoid getting involved in this shady business. Below are seven ways the security industry can help address the lack of regulation surrounding the cadaver trade.

1. Build a Secure Inventory System With Blockchain

The concept and design of blockchain fits this industry’s need quite well. Blockchain could help medical schools find the correct type and quantity of cadavers for a group of surgical residents. If, for example, one medical school needed a set of lungs with lung disease or cancer, it could order those. This would also allow families who have donated a loved one’s remains to science to, if they choose, track where their donations go and see the difference it has made in the medical field.

2. Use RFID to Track Organs

Tag cadaver parts with radio frequency identification (RFID) to make sure organs and tissues don’t find their way onto hospital transplant lists. This is extremely dangerous for the receiving patient, and organ transplants are strictly regulated by federal laws.

3. Make Inventory Available Only to Trusted Buyers

Build a warehouse and apply bar codes to cadavers accordingly. If Amazon can manage massive inventory systems for its warehouses and distribution centers, the same concepts can be applied here. A real-time inventory system that is available to trustworthy buyers could allow for simple searching of the warehouses’ current supply.

4. Hire the Right Staff to Manage Warehouses

Hire medical or forensics students to work in the warehouses and handle the cadavers. No one who just walks in off the street can tell the different between the left-ventricular artery and the aorta or handle a cranial saw unless they have had medical training.

5. Use Blockchain to Manage Infected Tissue

Build additional security for donated cadavers with highly contagious diseases. Security mechanisms such as blockchain can help prevent the cadavers from being shipped to anyone other than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or high-containment facilities that can handle infected tissue properly.

6. Invest in AI-Based Recognition Technology

Incorporate artificial intelligence (AI)-based imagery to help catalog the cadavers and to combat organ donor fraud. AI and machine learning solutions can visually map, recognize and automatically track cadavers to help prevent body brokers from selling them on the black market for inflated profit, or selling cadavers that were never intended for donation to science.

7. Ensure Identities Are Trusted and Transactions Are Secure

Build an online ordering system that allows body brokers to fill requests for cadavers and provides a reasonable level of transparency on who ordered what, when and where, and how the order was filled, and make all transactions completely traceable. Cadavers should be purchased through a trust-based transaction system enabled by blockchain technology, not a simple email transaction. Only individuals with medical licenses and institutions licensed to practice medicine should be allowed to purchase from a body broker, so any transaction system should include sufficient access management controls to secure these users’ identities.

A Foundation for Better Regulation

The seven points above should become part of the foundation for legislation to regulate the donation and use of cadavers to medical science as an industry. In fact, perhaps we should phase out the term body broker altogether in favor of something that reflects medical advancement and progress. After all, the medical industry has come a long way since the days of body snatchers. It’s time the cadaver industry caught up.

Kelly Ryver
Management and Strategy Consultant, IBM

Kelly is a management and strategy consultant with over 20 years of consulting experience ranging from security analysis, to functional analysis to security ...
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