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N.C. Patients Received Stolen Human Tissue

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Thousands of operations are performed every year without a hitch. But recently, several Triangle hospitals found out dozens of reconstructive surgeries were anything but routine.

Human tissue stolen from funeral homes in New York may have been implanted in more than 50 patients at North Carolina hospitals, although none of the patients appears to have been harmed.

Duke University Health System, WakeMed and UNC Hospitals all unwittingly used the parts in skin grafts, plastic surgeries and neck and back operations. Thirty patients at WakeMed were affected, along with 12 at Durham Regional, four at Duke University Hospital, one at Duke Health Raleigh and two at UNC Hospitals.

"It is a scary story," said Dr. Michael Cuffe of Duke University Health System. "These tissues were taken from bodies in funeral homes."

The tissues were taken by a New Jersey company. Biomedical Tissue Services, who is now under investigation, sold the tissue to manufacturers, then distributed it to hospitals around the country.

The FDA and CDC sent warnings and issued a voluntary recall. Afterward, all the area hospitals sent letters to affected patients as a precaution.

"Although the CDC said that the risk for infection was low, it couldn't say it was zero," said Cuffe. "We felt important for peace of mind, etc. that we offered patients any kind of counseling and testing," said WakeMed Vice President of Operations and Patient Care at WakeMed Rick Gannotta.

And because the stolen tissue wasn't screened, the hospitals offered testing for infectious diseases like AIDS and syphilis. At this point, doctors say none of the 50 patients has report ed any problems.

The New Jersey company that originally bought the body parts, as well as a half-dozen funeral homes, are now under investigation, with indictments expected within the next few months.

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