Researchers fear 400 scientific studies used organs illegally harvested from Chinese prisoners

If a scientific study was conducted unethically, should publishers retract it?

  • A new study suggests hundreds of published scientific papers involving organ transplants in China violated ethical standards.
  • International professional standards say studies involving organ transplants shouldn't be published if the organs came from executed prisoners, or donors don't provide consent.
  • China has long been accused of facilitating a shady network of organ harvesting and trafficking, though it's been difficult to prove.

Hundreds of studies involving research on organ transplant recipients in China might have violated ethics standards, according to a new study that's called for the retraction of more than 400 published scientific papers.

Published in the journal BMJ Open, the study suggests that thousands of organs used for transplants in China likely came from condemned prisoners, and that past research has largely failed to investigate this possibility. As study authors Wendy Rogers and Matthew Robertson wrote in an article published by Newsweek, this violates international professional standards that say journals shouldn't publish research that:

  • involves any biological material from executed prisoners
  • lacks human research ethics committee approval
  • lacks consent of donors.

However, studies that fail to meet these criteria still get published. The study examined 445 papers, which detailed more than 85,000 organ transplants, published in peer-reviewed English-language journals between 2000 and 2017, finding that:

  • 92.5 percent of the publications didn't say whether the transplanted organs came from executed prisoners.
  • 99 percent didn't say whether organ donors gave consent.
  • 73 percent of papers received approval from an institutional ethics committee for their research.

​Organ harvesting in China

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The Communist Party of China has persecuted Falun Gong since 1999. Hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong members have been unlawfully imprisoned, subject to torture, psychological abuse, and forced labor. They are thought to be a source of China's illegal organ harvesting trade.

The Chinese government says about 10,000 organ transplants occur in the nation each year, and that these come from the "largest voluntary organ donation system in Asia." But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that such a large-scale voluntary donation program exists (for example, in 2010 China's official number of voluntary donors was 34), and a 2016 report suggested the real number of annual donations is somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000.

What explains the discrepancy? The authors of the recent study suggest China has been harvesting organs from condemned prisoners and prisoners of conscience, which may include Falun Gong members, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and some Christians.

China has long been accused of facilitating a network of organ harvesting and trafficking, a claim that's supported by eyewitness testimony, shady government data and the relative ease with which recipients can buy organs in the country, while in most developed nations patients wait months. In 2015, China promised not to harvest organs from executed prisoners, though there's been no new laws or regulations passed that suggest the practice isn't taking place.

In December, the Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China released a report saying: "The tribunal's members are all certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims."

​Scientists should be held responsible, too

The authors of the recent study argue that researchers and publishers should strictly adhere to ethical standards when conducting research involving organ transplants, and they've called for the mass retraction of all published work that fails to meet ethical standards.

"When a paper is published without identifying the source of the transplanted organs, it risks sending the message that ethical standards may be ignored or breached," the researchers wrote for Newsweek. "This undermines the incentive to comply with these standards in the future."

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.