Medical

Major Chinese organ transplant ethical breaches prompt calls for mass retraction of scientific papers

Major Chinese organ transplant...
Over 400 published papers are under fire for potentially using organs sourced from executed prisoners in China
Over 400 published papers are under fire for potentially using organs sourced from executed prisoners in China
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Over 400 published papers are under fire for potentially using organs sourced from executed prisoners in China
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Over 400 published papers are under fire for potentially using organs sourced from executed prisoners in China

A confronting new study has revealed over 400 published research papers may be in violation of international ethical standards regarding the use of donor organs sourced from executed prisoners. The study calls for a mass retraction of hundreds of research papers involving transplanted hearts, livers or lungs in mainland China.

The use of donor organs extracted from executed prisoners in China has long been a major ethical problem for the international research community. After the country officially acknowledged the practice in 2006, following years of denials, the government indicated it would move towards volunteer organ donation. However, as recently as 2017 it was claimed the controversial practice of prisoner organ harvesting was still ongoing.

General international standards on research ethics say studies must not be published if they utilize biological material from executed prisoners, or organs that were acquired without informed consent. While these international standards are explicit, they also lack any particular regulatory force outside of individual publisher and peer-reviewer oversight.

The new study examined 445 research papers published in credible peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2017. All the papers described research undertaken in mainland China involving transplanted hearts, livers or lungs. A stunning 92.5 percent of the papers reviewed were found to not reveal whether organs were sourced from executed prisoners, and 99 percent did not report whether organ donors provided consent.

"The transplant research community has failed to implement ethical standards banning publication of research using material from executed prisoners," the new study concludes. "As a result, a large body of unethical research now exists, raising issues of complicity and moral hazard to the extent that the transplant community uses and benefits from the results of this research."

The primary concern raised in this new review is that journal editors and peer-reviewers are not effectively investigating the sources of organs reported in the majority of Chinese transplantation research. It is suggested the onus is on the publishers and the international science community to police these standards by refusing to publish papers that may violate agreed ethical norms.

The issue of forced organ donations in China is not a trivial one. In December, an interim judgement was revealed from an independent people's tribunal established to investigate how widespread this practice actually is. Called The Independent Tribunal Into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience In China, the panel is specifically investigating the organized practice of organ harvesting from those in the country being held for political or religious reasons.

"…it is beyond doubt on the evidence presently received that forced harvesting of organs has happened on a substantial scale by state supported or approved organizations and individuals," the tribunal revealed in December.

Although the new study calls for a mass retraction of hundreds of suspect research papers, the authors do note their hopes are not high this will actually be followed up on. A recent attempt to secure a retraction for just one suspect paper resulted in a frustrating and prolonged process, with journals seemingly reluctant to swiftly pull published papers.

The new study was published in the journal BMJ Open.

Source: The Conversation

6 comments
paul314
Larry Niven's early work was supposed to be a warning, not a manual...
Brian M
Of course the issue should not be about organ harvesting organs from executed prisoners, but why the death penalty is still being used. The death penalty is a violation of fundamental human rights, so not just China of course, USA, Saudi etc. Should knowledge be retracted because it was wrongly/immorally obtained? Difficult one, historically knowledge has been used even if the experiments have involved the most horrific of war crimes, for example Nazi Josef Mengele experiments in cold water survival, even the NASA space program was built on work from WW2 Germany that involved war crimes for its existence. Maybe the knowledge should be used, but those who have committed crimes should be brought to justice, or as in China financial or other trade sanctions to curb the activity
bwana4swahili
An important differentiation is in play here. Were the criminals executed for their organs? Or were the organs simply extracted from executed criminals? There are indications the former may be the case...
hugo60
So let's look at the ethics. One must assume that science has been pushed forward by these papers. Imagine a case where the cure for cancer were to be found among one of the papers. Is it to be repressed because the genetic material came from a prisoner? Surely we should also withdraw the publication of any results taken from the HeLo cell line which was taken without consent? Logically any research based on any cells taken from aborted material or from any fetus should also be destroyed as no fetus ever gave consent.
ljaques
I have an organ donor check on my driver's license, and have since that option started. AFAIC, any harvestable products from any dead body should be harvested and save another life. (I want to be flambéd when my spirit leaves this husk, so I'm not concerned how much of the husk is left to flambé.) I'm only concerned if some gov't is killing people for parts. That would be a very bad thing. Shades of Max Headroom... I'm leaving my body to science fiction.
AbsolutJohn
@bwana4swahili - It is very likely, given the nature of China's black market and "golden rule" (whoever has the gold makes the rules) that your first suggestion is entirely correct. If you have the money, which all the leadership of the CCP do, their medical liaisons will find you a match for your alcohol poisoned liver, your non-functioning kidneys and your smoke-filled lungs. Just a quick visit to the local political prison camp will yield a multitude of donors. Look, the judicial system and rule of law in China are stacked grossly in favor of the CCP - and there's pretty much nothing that can be done about it at this time until their vast control and censorship of the internet is checked. So, that being said, it is a bad time to be a Chinese citizen with an ethical conscience and a voice - anywhere.