Skin from prisoners executed in China is being used to develop cosmetic collagen treatments aimed at the European market, according to The Guardian.
The newspaper says that agents from a China-based company claim the skin, which is taken from prisoners after they have been shot, is being used to develop the collagen for anti-aging treatments such as wrinkle and lip-filling injections.
Company reps reportedly described the practice to undercover reporters as "traditional" and nothing to "make such a big fuss about".
One told the undercover researchers: "A lot of the research is still carried out in the traditional manner using skin from the executed prisoner and aborted foetus."
He claimed the material was bought from large bio-tech firms in China's northern province of Heilongjiang.
When questioned on the record, however, the company denied that it uses skin from executed prisoners.
Amnesty International estimates that around 3,400 people were executed in China last year, and that some 6,000 more are on death row.
In the UK, collagen treatments are currently unregulated, being classed as neither medicine nor as cosmetic products. The Department of Health recently completed an inquiry into the subject, and concluded that regulation was necessary. However, it says it will wait for the European Union to draw up the necessary laws.
This decision has drawn criticism from doctors, who say laws are needed now, not in several years time.
Even setting ethical issues aside, using human tissue in this way does leave open a risk of infection. There are fears, for instance, that blood-borne viruses and even vCJD could be passed on from collagen made from human tissue.
The Chinese authorities maintain that any organs harvested from the bodies of executed prisoners are only taken with the consent of the prisoner and his or her family.
However, The Guardian reports that a former Chinese military physician told congress in the US that in 1995 he skinned the body of a convict who had been shot, and that while he was doing so, the man's heart was still beating. Chinese authorities denounced him as a liar.
Human rights campaigners in the region allege that organs are routinely sold to surgeons for transplant into paying foreign patients.
You can read the full Guardian report here. ®