A protest in Hong Kong of illegal organ trafficking in mainland China.

JEROME FAVRE/EPA/Newscom

Study retraction reignites concern over China’s possible use of prisoner organs

A journal has decided to retract a 2016 study because of concerns that its data on the safety of liver transplantation involved organs sourced from executed prisoners in China. The action, taken despite a denial by the study’s authors that such organs were used, comes after clinical ethicist Wendy Rogers of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues authored a letter to the editor of Liver International on 30 January, calling for the paper’s retraction in the “absence of credible evidence of ethical sourcing of organs.”

For years, Chinese officials have come under fire for allegedly allowing the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants, including for foreigners coming to the country for so-called medical tourism. In January 2015, it explicitly banned the practice and set up a volunteer donation system, but doubts persist that much has changed.

The disputed study—published online in October 2016—analyzed 563 consecutive liver transplantations performed before the ban (from April 2010 to October 2014) at a medical center in China. Suspicious, Rogers organized the protest letter to the journal. “Publication of data from prisoners is ethically inappropriate given that it [is] not possible to ensure that the prisoners freely agreed either to donate their organs, or to be included [in] a research program,” she tells ScienceInsider.

Mario Mondelli of the University of Pavia in Italy, Liver International’s editor-in-chief, notes that two of the study’s authors tried to reassure him in an email, which he provided to ScienceInsider. Shusen Zheng and Sheng Yan of the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, wrote that “all organs were recovered from donors after cardiac death and no grafts obtained from executed prisoners were used.” (Zheng, who was granted the Science and Technology Progress Award from the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation in 2013, and Yan have not responded to a request for comment from ScienceInsider.)

After getting no reply to subsequent request for further evidence on the origin of the organs, Mondelli says, the journal asked the authors’ institution for an official document, by 3 February, confirming that organs were not sourced from executed prisoners. Again, he says, there was no response.

Mondelli says the original study and its related correspondence will be published together in an upcoming print issue. The study will, however, be accompanied with a retraction statement, and the authors, adds Mondelli, will face a “life-long embargo” from submitting their work to Liver International.

Last year, Rogers and colleagues called for the retraction of another paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics that, according to Rogers, presented a “very positive” and “sanitized” account of organ procurement in China. In that case, instead of retracting the article, the journal published a lengthy correction.  

The new dispute has flared just before a summit on organ trafficking and transplant tourism, to be held in Vatican City, Italy on February 7 and 8, by The Pontifical Academy of Sciences.