Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Transplant Studies Execute “Ethics Dump”

By Guy Nolch

The organs of executed Chinese prisoners have been widely used to bypass ethical guidelines restricting Western researchers.

The spectre of the “mad scientist” raised its ugly head last November when Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology announced the birth of the first human babies whose genomes had been edited at the embryonic stage of development. The university claimed to have no knowledge of He’s project, which had been conducted off-campus, and fired him, while Chinese authorities described He’s work as “extremely abominable in nature” and “guarded” him at his home 24/7.

International condemnation of the regulation of Chinese medical research was quick, even though He’s collaborators had included US scientists and others who had known what was going on but had turned a blind eye. For instance, Prof Michael Deem of Rice University was the senior author of a paper submitted about the research to Nature, while He had shared news of his progress with Nobel Laureate Prof Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts in an email titled “Success!”.

Not only didn’t these and other scientists raise concerns, but several scientists have defended human germline interventions or announced their own research aspirations. For instance, Dr Werner Neuhausser of Harvard University has announced plans to edit the DNA inside sperm cells.

Such controversial research can be blocked in more regulated jurisdictions if they don’t adhere to ethical guidelines. This has led to the practice of “ethics dumping”, which the European Commission’s TRUST consortium describes as “the export of non-ethical research practices to low‐ and middle‐income countries” (https://goo.gl/bTsoen).

Ethics dumping goes much wider than He’s transgression. In February Dr Wendy Rogers of Macquarie University led a report in BMJ Open (https://goo.gl/S9Bnd1) that investigated the use of executed Chinese prisoners as the source of organs for transplant research. Rogers examined 445 studies from 2000 to April 2017 involving 85,477 transplants, and found that “412 (92.5%) failed to report whether or not organs were sourced from executed prisoners, and 439 (99%) failed to report that organ sources gave consent for transplantation... Of the papers claiming that no prisoners’ organs were involved in the transplants, 19 of them involved 2688 transplants that took place prior to 2010, when there was no volunteer donor programme in China.”

International standards ban the publication of research that involves biological material from executed prisoners, lacks the consent of donors and the approval of a human research ethics committee. Rogers’ paper notes that in 2006 “Chinese officials first openly acknowledged that the majority of transplanted organs were sourced from executed prisoners”. The following year, “China claimed it would reduce reliance on executed prisoners... However, the use of prisoners’ organs remains technically legal today in China if ‘consent’ is obtained, and in 2017 Chinese officials admitted that it is not possible to verify that all organ harvesting from prisoners has ceased.”

Rogers concludes that “a large body of unethical research now exists, raising issues of complicity and moral hazard” among transplant researchers throughout the world. “There has been a significant lack of vigilance and failure to adhere to accepted ethical standards by reviewers, editors and publishers,” the paper concludes. “Researchers and clinicians who use this body of research risk complicity by implicitly accepting Chinese methods of organ procurement.

While the researchers “call for immediate retraction of all papers reporting research based on use of organs from executed prisoners,” Rogers admits that “securing a retraction can be a prolonged process... and even retracted articles continue to be widely cited” (http://austscience.com/uf402).


Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.