Organ transplantation can dramatically improve or save lives. A heart transplant can literally give a person a new lease of life, while a kidney transplant frees the recipient from lengthy spells on dialysis.
A people's tribunal in London has recently found that in China, organs are sourced from prisoners of conscience who are killed on demand to fuel the lucrative organ transplantation market.
To protect the integrity of organ transplantation, there are strict ethical guidelines. When organs are sourced from deceased persons, the donation must be voluntary, donors must die naturally before any organs are taken, and death must not be hastened to provide organs. These ethical guidelines protect donors and provide assurance to transplant recipients that their organs have been sourced ethically.
However, not all countries follow these ethical guidelines. A people's tribunal in London has recently found that in China, organs are sourced from prisoners of conscience who are killed on demand to fuel the lucrative organ transplantation market. This conclusion, reported at the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 24, was not reached lightly.
The independent China Tribunal, made up of four human rights lawyers, one surgeon with transplant experience, an academic who specialises in China studies and a businessman with human rights interests, spent over a year looking at written materials and heard evidence from over 50 witnesses in five days of hearings. Their grim conclusion, that prisoners of conscience are murdered for their organs, confirms the findings of earlier investigations.
Questions first arose over China's transplant system when the numbers of transplants rose dramatically after 2000. Transplant capacity rapidly increased; new infrastructure was built and staff were trained. Hospital websites offered livers, hearts and kidneys available in a matter of days or weeks, for a price. Foreigners were encouraged to come to China to avoid lengthy transplant waiting lists in their home countries.
At the time, it was a mystery as to how China had a ready supply of organs, despite having no volunteer donation system. Eventually, in 2006, the Chinese government stated that organs were removed from prisoners who had been found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty. But this explanation did not ring true. Death row prisoners often have poor health, including high rates of infectious diseases, making them poor candidates for donation. By contrast, the organs offered for sale were promised to be healthy.
In 2006, the first clues about the source of the organs emerged. A woman called Annie reported that her surgeon husband had been present during organ removal from Falun Gong practitioners who were still breathing as the scalpels cut into them. A subsequent investigation by two Canadian human rights lawyers examined multiple sources of evidence, concluding that murdered Falun Gong practitioners were indeed the source of the organs.
The evidence included testimony from practitioners who had been imprisoned, tortured, and later released. During imprisonment, many practitioners reported blood and other medical tests examining the health of their organs—tests that were not performed on any other prisoners. Phone calls made to Chinese hospitals by investigators posing as patients were offered rapid access to fresh organs from Falun Gong practitioners. The organs were guaranteed to be healthy, as the practice forbids smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
Since 2006, evidence has continued to accumulate. China has a huge transplant industry and no plausible source of voluntary organ donations. Unlike the rest of the world, Chinese waiting times remain very short. Foreigners continue to come to China to avoid lengthy waiting lists. Prisoners of conscience, including Tibetans and Uyghurs as well as Falun Gong practitioners, are still being imprisoned and medically tested.
The Chinese government continues to deny these crimes, claiming that there is a volunteer donor system in place.
The China Tribunal heard from Uyghur witnesses who had recently been inside the notorious labour camps (also called "re-education" centers) in Xin Xiang. The witnesses reported terrible conditions, including overcrowding and torture, and were forced to have medical examinations. They saw other prisoners disappear without explanation following similar medical tests. As recently as 2018, doctors in Chinese hospitals were promising potential patients healthy Falun Gong organs in taped phone calls.
The Chinese government continues to deny these crimes, claiming that there is a volunteer donor system in place. In the Chinese system, prisoners are counted as volunteers.
China's forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has international implications. A recent study found that most published Chinese transplant research is based on organs sourced from prisoners. International ethical guidance prohibits taking organs from prisoners and prohibits publication of research based on transplanted material from prisoners. The authors of that study called for retractions of the papers, some of which are in well-known scientific journals. So far Transplantation and PLOS One are among the journals that have already retracted over twenty articles in response. On questioning from the editors, the authors of the papers failed to respond or could not verify that the organs in the transplant research came from volunteers.
The international community has a moral obligation to act together to stop forced organ harvesting in China.
The China Tribunal concluded that forced organ harvesting remains China's main source of transplant organs. In their view, the commission of Crimes Against Humanity against the Uyghurs and Falun Gong has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. By their actions, the Chinese government has turned a life-saving altruistic practice into our worst nightmare. The international community has a moral obligation to act together to stop forced organ harvesting in China, and end these crimes against humanity.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby