Behind the business of body tissue donations

It is a controversial industry, shrouded in mystery and stigma; the business of harvesting bodies.

You may have heard the stories of a Valley business mishandling bodies, but one Valley CEO is speaking up and defending the industry, and trying to change it as well.

In the middle of Phoenix in a nondescript office building, there's a storage freezer that few have been inside. Stacked wall-to-wall, wrapped inside body bags, are human body parts.

There's everything inside from heads, shoulders, knees, and whole bodies that are used for medical research.

Research for Life collects about 1,000 whole-body donations a year, some are used for transplants, but the vast majority of bodies are used for medical research or education. Bodies are taken apart and provided for a fee to medical professionals. CEO Garland says a single body can net $2,000 to $3,000.

"What a terrible waste it would be if the person doing heart research had to take the whole body when all they needed was the heart," said CEO Garland Shreves.

Arizona has one of the largest concentration of body harvesting centers, and the thriving multi-million dollar industry is under intense scrutiny. Federal agents in 2014 raided a different Phoenix body donation business; Biological Resource Center. The owner pleaded guilty to using donated bodies in ways that went against the Donor's wishes.

In Arizona families of those who donate their bodies are often left in the dark. There is no law requiring companies to disclose what happens to the body after donation.

Shreves is trying to battle the stigma of harvesting bodies for profit; he opens his business to public tours four times a year.

"People will often ask me often; how will my body be used when I die? What project will I be used for? The reality is we don't know what your health condition will be at the time of death," said Shreves.

Companies are compensated for collecting the bodies, but there are no Arizona laws regulating the industry. No standards for the equipment used. And no inspections of the facilities. Shreves says there should be.

"We think it is important that happens, not only to protect the consumer, but also to protect the integrity of the industry and the process so that the public can have trust in the industry," said Shreves.

In the facility there is a green line, that's the transplant section of the business, and the area is FDA regulated. But take one step beyond the green line and you're in the medical research portion of the business. There's no government oversight that regulates this area, but the business says they are intentionally self-regulating.

"I think one of the biggest stigma's is that because there is no oversight there is no professionalism, and most of the tissue banks in Arizona are accredited with the American Association of Tissue Banks," said Shreves.

He's working with federal and state lawmakers to draft legislation that would require licensing for body tissue donation centers. But before he was trying to bring legitimacy in the industry, for three decades he was in the age-old funeral business.

"I spent a good portion of my life burying and cremating people, and in this business we get to deal with families who are in the midst of sorrow who are making a difference," said Shreves.

He says the bodies collectively go on to help perfect operation procedures, medical education professionals, and advance medicine.

"Every single donor who comes into this facility is loved by someone, cared by someone, and I hope we never become so cold that we forget that donors are giving of themselves to contribute to humanity, to benefit medicine that can benefit future generations," said Shreves.

The business of harvesting bodies to benefit the living, it's something Shreves says he will defend to the grave.

Research for Life accepts donated bodies from those over the age of 18. It will not accept bodies with communicable diseases such as HIV.