More than 400 scientific papers could be withdrawn because they may have involved harvested organs

Researchers demand 400 scientific papers on transplantation are retracted ‘because the organs were harvested from executed prisoners in China without consent’

  • Scientists from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, made the discovery 
  • They say organs may have been taken from political prisoners who died
  • And they say it’s unethical for Western countries to benefit from the research 

More than 400 scientific studies should be withdrawn because they may have been based on organs harvested from dead prisoners in China, experts say.

Transplant trials are thought to have been conducted on hearts, livers or lungs taken from executed criminals and political prisoners who have passed away in the Asian nation.

China is believed to have the highest execution rate in the world and, until 2015, death row inmates were routinely used as a source of organ donation.

But experts say studying these body parts is unethical and papers which don’t specify where organs came from should be retracted.

Scientists said it is unethical for countries to benefit from studies which have involved organs harvested from prisoners whilst outwardly condemning the practice (stock image)

Researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, were concerned by 445 papers published in English language journals.

The studies from between 2000 and 2017 involved data from 85,477 organ transplants in China.

But the vast majority did not report whether the tissues had been taken from executed prisoners (92.5 per cent) or if donors had given their consent (99 per cent).

Professor Wendy Rogers, lead author of the study, said the findings were ‘morally concerning’, the British Medical Journal reported.

She added scientists and journal editors and publishers had showed ‘a significant lack of vigilance and failure to stick to accepted ethical standards’.

‘We were quite shocked to find that there had been so few questions asked about where the organs came from in this Chinese research,’ she told AFP.

Some 19 papers claimed no prisoners’ organs were used but had used results from transplants which took place before voluntary donations were allowed.

In 2006, China openly admitted to harvesting executed prisoners’ organs to donate, and a law requiring donors’ consent was only devised in 2011.

The country has been transplanting organs for decades but the practice was largely unregulated until laws and safeguards began to be introduced in 2007.

From then on they brought in rules to require donor consent, limited which hospitals could do the operations, and set up an official state-run donation system.

In 2015, they officially banned the harvesting of organs from prisoners although it is still technically legal, according to the BMJ.

A judge found last year the state had ‘for a substantial period’ been harvesting organs from ‘prisoners of conscience’ – those locked up because of their political or religious beliefs.

Amnesty International calls China’s use of the death penalty ‘horrifying’ and estimates the country executes more people than the rest of the world combined.

Professor Rogers said the studies should be retracted because it would be hypocritical to benefit from China’s organ harvesting whilst publicly condemning it.

She said any papers including data from transplants done before 2015 are ‘highly likely’ to have involved harvested organs.

And the team have called for an international meeting to discuss policy in this area and investigate other unethical research.


Doctors say the use of antibodies, called Anti Thymocyte Globulin, from a rabbit or horse, is effective in helping kidney transplant work.

They are deemed the most effective because they have a wider, more superior set of blood proteins which can identify change.

The use of rabbit cells, which have been used in humans for the past 35 years, is common to help fight infections due to the amount of natural antibodies the mammal makes because of its larger spleen.

Lorna Marson, Kidney Research UK former trustee and a consultant transplant surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, said: ‘Essentially ATG is a very safe treatment which is very effective in significantly reducing the likelihood of patients rejecting.

‘It’s commonly used in complex patients such as this, where they may have had multiple transplants and what it does is significantly dampen the immune system.’