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German surgeon under investigation over organ trading

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 15 March 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:568
  1. Annette Tuffs
  1. Heidelberg

    German officials are investigating alleged organ trading in four cases of kidney transplantation carried out by a prominent surgeon.

    The district attorney of Essen is looking into the case, in which kidneys were allegedly donated by Moldovan “relatives” to their “cousins” from Israel. All transplantations were carried out by the surgeon Christoph Broelsch, at Essen University Hospital and Jena University Hospital.

    Last week the family of one Israeli recipient admitted in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel that it paid the Moldovan donor—who was not a relative—several hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. However, the kidney transplantation eventually failed and the recipient died.

    This transplantation was carried out at Jena University Hospital, because an internal committee of the hospital in Essen had doubts about the relationship between donor and recipient and turned down the operation.

    German transplantation law permits living donation only if donors and recipients are relatives or close friends. Commercial interests have to be excluded by an independent committee. Because the Jena hospital did not have a committee at the time (the state of Thuringia had not issued the relevant law), Broelsch transferred the patient to his surgeon friend Johannes Scheele in Jena, where the operation then took place. Essen University Hospital criticised Broelsch's action, but no action was taken.

    Meanwhile another three donors (allegedly cousins of the recipients) from Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia have donated their kidneys in operations at the Essen hospital, the Essen nephrologist Thomas Philipp admitted in Der Spiegel.

    However, in all the cases the hospital transplantation committee and the independent committee of the regional medical council, which includes a lawyer and a psychiatrist, approved the operation. As the transplantation law was kept to and the committees took part in the decision, prosecutors are not investigating the surgeons and doctors involved.

    Christoph Broelsch claims not to have known whether any payment was made. However, he has often and controversially said that he would like to have the transplantation law changed so that living donors or relatives of deceased donors would be able receive payment.

    Johannes Scheel has had to step down as director of his department because of his involvement in the organ trading case. Scheele has also been accused of letting several patients on his waiting list for a liver transplant die because for months he didn't accept any transplant offers from Eurotransplant, the organ exchange organisation for several European countries, owing to shortage of staff.

    An internal investigation is being carried out, and the liver and pancreas transplantation programme has been put on hold.

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