Chinese researchers will have to prove transplanted organs used in their medical research were donated with consent or risk having their publications retracted, experts say.
The journals PLOS One and Transplantation have recently retracted 19 articles so far after study authors were unable to provide evidence on the source of the transplanted livers and kidneys cited in their work.
Chinese researchers until 2010 relied on organ transplants taken from executed prisoners to undertake studies, a practice considered illegal under international conventions.
An editorial in Transplantation addressing the recent retractions said the journal wanted to emphasise that it was unacceptable to use organs from executed people, regardless of what nation or timeframe the study took place in.
“A number of Chinese authors know, from recent experience, that manuscripts that are not explicit about the source of the organs presented in their articles, are returned for that information to be provided,” they wrote.
But Professor Wendy Rogers from the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics at Macquarie University in Sydney, said it was unclear why the journals approved the articles in the first place.
“I’m really pleased that they’ve turned around and had a good look at their own papers and retracted the ones that used organs from executed prisoners, but I don’t have an answer as to why they published them in the first place,” she told The Medical Republic.
Defending the original decision to publish, Transplantation claims it was blindsided by changing statements from the Chinese government about where the organs were sourced from.
In 2006, the Chinese government responded to years of speculation by announcing transplanted organs used in research came from executed prisoners. Then in 2010, Bejiing said it had started a volunteer organ donation program and by 2015 it claimed that all organs obtained came only after informed consent.
However, recent data from the China Organ Harvest Research Centre casts doubt on this with China still performing more organ transplants than any other country in the world.
“There’s no evidence that the transplant activity has slowed down and it’s not that China has worked a miracle and now they have all volunteer donors,” Professor Rogers said.
Another international investigation, called the China Tribunal, was convened from 2018 to determine the state of organ transplantation in the People’s Republic. That tribunal has heard that in recent months Falun Gong and Uyghur prisoners were forced to undergo blood tests and abdominal ultrasounds and that these individuals often disappeared shortly afterwards.
The tribunal also cited transcripts from covert phone calls confirming foreigners could book organ transplants in China in advance. Some calls also included Chinese doctors promising “fresh Falun Gong organs”.
In a separate Australian-led investigation, Professor Rogers and her colleagues reviewed 445 transplantation articles from China published between 2000 and 2017. The results revealed a large body of potentially unethical research, with 99% of all articles not reporting whether or not organs were sourced from consenting donors.
Professor Rogers said while the retractions were a step forward, there were still more than 400 papers in currently circulation citing research which relied on organs that had been harvested from prisoners.