Doctors treating jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo has stopped using cancer-fighting drugs so as not to overwhelm his severely weakened liver, raising concerns that China's most prominent political prisoner is critically ill.
The team decided to stop use of an inhibitor drug for advanced liver cancer in light of Liu's rapidly deteriorating liver function, according to a statement on the website of the First Hospital of China Medical University in Shenyang on Friday.
It said a traditional Chinese medicine anti-tumour treatment had also been suspended, while low-molecular heparin had been added to treat venous thrombosis developing in Liu's left leg.
The latest statement appears to be part of an effort by Beijing to show it is providing Liu with the best possible care, amid questions about his prison conditions and international calls for him to be freed to seek treatment abroad.
Zeng Jinyan, a close family friend in contact with Liu's brother-in-law Liu Hui, confirmed on Friday that Liu's situation was not optimistic.
Citing Liu Hui, Zeng said the inhibitor drug Sorafenib has failed to work on Liu Xiaobo.
"He is yet to see any improvement after two to three weeks, but its side-effects are causing his liver functions to badly deteriorate with severe accumulation of abdominal fluid," Zeng wrote in a statement posted online. "So the drug must be suspended, and the focus has shifted to preserve his liver and to give his body a chance to breathe."
Liu was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in May while serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion by advocating sweeping political reforms that would end China's one-party rule. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, the year after he was convicted and jailed by a Chinese court.
In the years since, China has ignored international calls to free Liu while isolating him to the degree that he has been unable to convey any message to the outside world.
His wife, Liu Xia, has been under strict house arrest in Beijing despite never being accused of any crime.
Even after he was transferred to the hospital in the north-eastern city of Shenyang under medical parole, Liu, his wife and family members were largely prevented from communicating with anyone outside.
In her statement, Zeng repeated her call for Liu to be freed and allowed to seek treatment overseas. Before then, Liu's doctors should be able to speak freely about his medical treatment, and Liu should be transferred to a top international hospital in China, she wrote.
Although the Chinese government has so far showed no sign that it would free Liu or allow him to travel overseas, it has acceded to family requests to allow liver cancer experts from Germany, the US and elsewhere to join the Chinese medical team treating Liu.
The US Embassy also urged China to allow Liu to seek the treatment of his choosing and grant the American and German doctors unhindered access to him.
"We're aware of reports that the medical condition of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate and writer Liu Xiaobo is rapidly deteriorating," embassy spokeswoman Mary Beth Polley said on Friday. "We continue to call on the Chinese authorities to grant Mr Liu full parole and to release his wife, Liu Xia, from house arrest."
Apart from the hospital's statements, China has released little information about Liu's situation and supporters who have visited the Shenyang hospital have been unable to locate him.
China has rejected outside calls for his release as interference in its domestic affairs and it was unclear if any foreign experts had yet arrived in Shenyang.