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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grim Siberian Tale of Gland Smuggling

When bottles crammed with preserved glands from about 700 corpses were found stashed in a Krasnoyarsk morgue, police took notice.

They now suspect that coroners in the Siberian region secretly removed pituitary glands from thousands of corpses in the past two years and illegally smuggled them abroad.

Vladimir Chikun, who oversees forensic morgues in the Krasnoyarsk region, is suspected of masterminding the scheme, said a regional police official in the anti-organized crime unit who asked not to be identified. No one has been charged in the case, said the official, who spoke Tuesday by telephone.

The official said Chikun did not document the gland removal, which makes it difficult to say exactly how many pituitary glands were taken. But police estimate Chikun ordered them to be removed from about 90 percent of the roughly 12,000 corpses that went through the regional morgues in the past two years.

The pituitary gland, which is often called the master gland and is located at the base of the brain, stimulates and coordinates the functions of other endocrine glands. It is also crucial for reproduction. The gland produces the so-called human growth hormone, or HGH, which is used to treat children and adults with growth defects.

Drugs made with HGH are used by athletes to allow them to train more strenuously, although this performance-enhancing use of the hormone is banned in many countries.

The police official said the glands were most likely sold to Western Europe.

While the donation and use of human tissues is standard, selling them is illegal in Russia, as well as in Europe and the United States.

But weak legislation regulating the use of tissue extracted from cadavers provides for a frenzied trade in human body parts. Under Russian law, tissue may be extracted without consent, unless stated otherwise in writing by the donor before death or by his or her relatives.

Chikun caught the police’s attention in August, when about 700 pituitary glands were discovered in the Krasnoyarsk forensic morgue, the official said.

He said Chikun apparently ordered morgue employees to remove the glands but did not pay them extra for their work. The coroners obliged "because they were afraid to lose their jobs," he said.

The official refused to say how much Chikun may have profited from the scheme.

International health regulations forbid the sale of human organs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization said they did not know the black market price for human pituitary glands. Tissue banks in Russia and Britain were also unaware of the price tag for the gland.

Chikun’s deputy, Yevgeny Starinov, said Chikun was ill and unavailable for comment Tuesday. Starinov also refused to comment.

Officials at the Krasnoyarsk health department, who oversee the activities of local forensic experts, were not available for comment Tuesday. The police spokesman said the health officials were "strangely reluctant" to support the investigation.

Trade in Russian body parts flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when, due to a sharp decline in quality of life and poor health care, the country’s morgues became swamped with the dead. Human body parts and even whole cadavers were exported without consent.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that in 1992 Moscow’s famous Sklifosovsky Research Institute delivered more than 5,600 pieces of human tissue — bones and tendons from hips, knees, legs and feet — to tissue banks and hospitals throughout the United States. The institute charged $5,000 for each shipment, but Sklifosovsky’s Dr. Valery Khvatov, who headed up the operation, denied personally benefiting from the trade.

The Orange County Register newspaper in California reported earlier this year that products made of tissue collected from one body could generate as much as $200,000.

The safety of Russian transplant tissue has been called into question. On Tuesday, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Yekaterinburg doctors recently transplanted a kidney from a dead donor who later proved to be HIV-positive. An investigation carried out by the FDA several years ago indicated that a large quantity of Russian cadavers shipped to the United States for tissue tested positive for infectious diseases.

The Krasnoyarsk police official said that because of the lack of documentation for the glands, it is not clear whether the glands ostensibly extracted at Chikun’s order were safe.

The FDA said Tuesday it could not comment on the threat posed by illegal human tissue trade from Russia.

Health Ministry press secretary Irina Kagramonova said there were no data regarding the illegal export of human tissue. "Sale of human tissue does not exist in Russia because it is illegal," she said.