Friday, June 17, 2005

Maine’s chief medical examiner has testified that a morgue worker wasn’t required to provide consent forms before submitting donated brain specimens to a Maryland research institute.

In a deposition in a lawsuit, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, the state’s chief medical examiner, said Matthew Cyr, a former funeral director, was not required to provide officials with a consent form before he shipped a brain to the Stanley Medical Research Institute, a nonprofit lab in Bethesda.

The lawsuit — one of several filed by 10 Maine families — says Mr. Cyr harvested the brains of their loved ones for the research institute without their consent.

Mr. Cyr had a “fairly informal” agreement with the medical examiner’s office that a consent form had been properly obtained before the office received a specimen, said Chuck Dow, a spokesman for the medical examiner’s office.

Mr. Dow said Mr. Cyr eventually was supposed to provide the consent forms to the medical examiner’s office, but was not on any specific timetable.

“Dr. Greenwald believes that accommodating people involved with facilitating anatomical gifts for transplant and research is both lawful and wise from a public health perspective,” Mr. Dow said.

The medical examiner’s office in Maine operates under the state Attorney General’s Office, he said.

In 1999, Stanley Institute officials made a deal with Maine’s medical examiner to obtain brains after post-mortem work and hired Mr. Cyr, a funeral inspector, to solicit family members’ consent.

The institute paid Mr. Cyr $1,000 a month plus $1,000 to $2,000 for each brain collected — payments that totaled as much as $200,000 over four years.

The brains ended up at the Stanley Institute, which has about 625 brain samples in its freezers. Researchers use the brains to study schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The arrangement between the medical examiner’s office and the institute was permissible under Maine law, provided the next of kin gave consent.

Byrne Decker, a lawyer representing the Stanley Institute in Portland, Maine, and its founder, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, said this week that the lab has “always acted in good faith” and declined further comment because of the pending litigation.

But as many as 31 families in Maine say they did not agree to donate their loved ones’ brains or were misled to believe that only a small tissue sample, rather than the entire brain, would be removed.

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