Healthy woman died due to ‘unproven and wholly unnecessary’ cancer treatment from private clinic, court hears
HK$59,500 blood infusion procedure left one patient dead and another with limbs amputated, according to prosecutors at manslaughter trial
Two Hong Kong beauty salon doctors and a technician involved in the death of a woman in 2012 used an “unproven and wholly unnecessary” cancer therapy learned in mainland China on healthy customers that hospitals in the city would not even deploy for the sick, prosecutors alleged at their trial on Tuesday.
The expensive treatment offered by DR Group – which involves blood being taken, processed and reintroduced into a patient’s body – resulted in the death of Chan Yuen-lam, 46, after her blood sample became infected by bacteria, the prosecutors told a jury at the High Court.
The procedure had been learned from a mainland Chinese hospital just months before it was administered to the women, the court heard.
Another patient, Wong Ching-bor, was forced to have two legs and four fingers amputated following the treatment, while a third customer, Wong Fung-kwan, recovered but was permanently injured. All three received the treatment on the same day, prosecutor Raymond Leung Wai-man SC said.
Dr Stephen Chow Heung-wing, head of DR Group, Dr Mak Wan-ling, and Chan Kwun-chung each deny one count of manslaughter due to gross negligence.
Summarising the case for the nine jurors – six men and three women – Leung said “unproven and wholly unnecessary medical treatment was provided, arranged and applied by one or more of the defendants, who were motivated by monetary and personal gain”.
He said the incident began after the three women paid about HK$59,500 for each infusion and had blood drawn on September 12, 2012, at a DR Group clinic in Causeway Bay.
The samples were then processed by Asia-Pacific Stem Cell Science at Hong Kong Science and Technology Park for a treatment involving cytokine-induced killer cells. Chow owned the laboratory, while Chan Kwun-chung worked there as a technician.
The prosecutor alleged the trio went to Guangzhou Military Command’s general hospital on the mainland, which boasted an “exaggerated” success rate in treating cancer patients. The two-day visit in February 2012, he added, was meant to learn about the procedure.
Leung alleged that a company circular showed that, within days of their return to Hong Kong, it was already announced internally that staff would begin offering the procedure.
Chan Kwun-chung, holder of a biomedical degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as another staff member were each sent back to the hospital to learn about the procedure later that February. This happened, the prosecutor argued, despite the fact that such a procedure was typically performed by a haematologist and required three years of training.
Leung said the two practiced on two staff members in March 2012 and claimed they gave favourable feedback. But he described the process as anecdotal, biased, and unscientific.
“It would be naive for [Chow] to think that such testing was effective and a sufficient basis to launch such products,” he added.
Leung explained the theory behind the procedure was that it could improve one’s immune system. But he added the theory was unproven.
He questioned why the procedure would be marketed, promoted and applied to three healthy women when hospitals in the city had refrained from providing the treatment even to cancer patients.
“In Hong Kong we do not provide CIK treatment because we have better alternatives,” he said. “It should only be done, if at all, in a supervised hospital setting where all the support is there and preparation of the blood cells is supervised by a haematologist.”
Weeks later, the blood samples were sent to the clinic, where on October 3 they were reintroduced into the patients’ bloodstream by Mak.
“As a result of the infusion, one died, one ended up having two limbs and four fingers amputated, and one recovered but with permanent injuries to her limbs,” Leung said.
He said the three women experienced a range of symptoms including dizziness, shivering, chest discomfort, numb limbs, and septic shock within 24 hours of the infusion, and were admitted to Ruttonjee Hospital and United Christian Hospital.
Chan died on October 10, 2012, after multiple organ failure.
Leung cited blood poisoning as the cause. “The blood they were infused with was contaminated with mycobacterium abscessus,” he said.
He added that Chow’s sister, who had cancer, went through the same procedure and ended up suffering from the same kind of bacterial infection.
The prosecutor said Mak, who administered the infusion, had been “acutely aware of” the bacterial infection, having previously prescribed antibiotics to the two Wong women shortly after the infusions when each complained of discomfort.
What appeared to be a medical blunder normally warranting a civil claim had ended up in a criminal court because the defendants’ breach of their duty of care and disregard were so “blatantly wrong” that they amounted to “a crime of the state”, Leung told the court.
He urged the jury not to be fooled by phrases and labels that might be adopted during the trial by the defence, such as referring to the women as customers instead of patients.
“That does not detract from the fact that infusing blood products is a medical procedure … therefore if it isn’t done properly it carries legal consequences,” he said.
The trial continues before Mrs Justice Judianna Barnes Wai-ling on Wednesday.