May 3, 2001
volume 12, no. 123

Report: China Selling Organs from Condemned Prisoners

Salk Institute Scientists isolating and growing brain cells from dead corpses

    NEW YORK, May 2, 01 ( - A New York transplant doctor has become the first American physician to discuss a practice that he believes is becoming more common: US patients are traveling to Asia and paying $10,000 or more to receive a transplanted organ harvested from executed prisoners in China. Dr. Thomas Diflo revealed his concerns in an interview with the Village Voice newspaper this week.

    Diflo, director of the renal transplant program at the New York University Medical Center, told the newspaper he has seen half a dozen patients in his clinic who admitted to receiving transplants from Chinese executed prisoners--some of whom were convicted for minor offenses. He said he has taken his concerns to the medical center's ethics committee.

    "To tell you the truth, the original rationale for bringing this situation to the ethics committee was my own discomfort in taking care of these patients. I was outraged at the way in which they obtained their organs, and I had a great deal of difficulty separating that fact from the care of the patient," Diflo told the Voice.

    "Several patients were very up-front and candid about it, that they bought an organ taken from an executed convict for about $10,000," Diflo recalled. "Most of the patients are ecstatic to be off of dialysis, and none has seemed particularly perturbed regarding the source of the organs."

    The sale of organs is a felony in the US under a 1984 law and is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. Prisoners in the US, regular or condemned, are forbidden from even donating organs, except to family members under specific circumstances. The newspaper quotes human rights organizations as saying the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working to find and prosecute organ brokers.

    Meanwhile Reuters reports that scientists in La Jolla, California are trying to isolate, and grow bain cells from dead corpses. Researchers have isolated and cultivated brain cells from human corpses in a scientific feat that could provide a new source of stem cells for research and developing medical treatments.

    Professor Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Salk Institute in California obtained the brain cells that can grow, divide and form specialized brain cells from tissue samples of people shortly after their deaths.

    Their achievement, reported in the science journal Nature on Wednesday, could overcome the ethical obstacles of using stem cells derived from embryos. ``I find it remarkable that we have pockets of cells in our brain that can grow and differentiate throughout our lives and even after death,'' Gage said in a statement.

    Stem cells are master cells that can grow into virtually any type of cell in the body. Embryos are the richest source of human stem cells but their use has been dogged by ethical debate.

    Right-to-life and religious groups oppose the use of stem cells from early embryos. Scientists want to use the cells to develop treatments for diseases ranging from Parkinson's, diabetes and cancers to leukemia, hepatitis and stroke.

    Gage and his team used biopsy or post-mortem tissue from 23 people ranging from 11 weeks to 72 years old. Tissue taken from younger individuals provided more viable cells. The scientists used special growth factors to obtain cells from the tissue, which they said was a crucial element to their success.

    ``This study employed a pool of cells from extracted tissue. We haven't yet isolated individual cells from that pool and followed them to see if a single cell can give rise to multiple classes of brain cells,'' Gage explained.

    All of the cells used in the research were from people who had suffered from brain disorders. Gage and his colleagues were using them to study the cell biology of the various brain diseases. ``Cells recovered from healthy individuals could provide a model for understanding how to stimulate and guide the normal processes of brain cell growth and differentiation, lending insight to how growth might be stimulated in people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's,'' said Gage.

    The scientists are also planning to transplant the brain cells into animals to see if they survive and differentiate. ``Testing in whole animals is the only way to know if adult tissue can be a source of stem or progenitor cells for transplant purposes to treat neurodegenerative disease,'' Gage added.

    Stem cells are derived from the cells of aborted fetuses, blood cells taken from the umbilical cord at birth and adult tissue. Stem cells from early embryos offer the greatest potential for human benefit.

May 3, 2001
volume 12, no. 123
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