Hong Kong beauty clinic staff told to ‘seize the opportunity’ to sell risky cancer therapy, manslaughter trial hears
Prosecutor says employees were told that customers who had undergone the blood infusion reported reduction in pain and increase in sexual prowess
Staff at a Hong Kong beauty group accused of manslaughter were encouraged to “seize the opportunity” and sell an unnecessary, “amateurish” cancer treatment to healthy customers, the High Court heard on Wednesday.
The cell replacement therapy, which cost almost HK$60,000 a time, should target those with insomnia, pain and immunity problems, one notice instructed employees of the DR Group, even though it had only been tested in a “trial and error” way.
Another notice spoke of an open day that required both “overt” and “covert” salespeople to team up with Chinese medicine practitioners to try to increase sales when a customer only signed up for the trial session without making a purchase.
The process involved blood being taken, processed and reintroduced into a patient’s body. While only two employees had tried it themselves, one notice told staff that customers who had been treated reported a reduction in pain and an increase in sexual prowess, the court heard.
Staff were offered substantial commissions if they made a sale.
The High Court is trying Dr Stephen Chow Heung-wing, head of the DR Group, employee Dr Mak Wan-ling, and laboratory technician Chan Kwun-chung over the death of Chan Yuen-lam, 46.
She died after suffering from septicaemia following cytokine-induced killer cells (CIK) treatment at the group’s Hong Kong Mesotherapy Centre in Causeway Bay on October 3, 2012.
The three each deny one count of manslaughter by gross negligence.
On the second day of his opening address, prosecutor Raymond Leung Wai-man SC produced internal notices by DR Group – signed off by DR, as Chow was known among colleagues – to illustrate the group’s attitude to maximise profits and its “anecdotal” and “gimmicky” marketing approach.
“They are trying to introduce a new product and sell it as quick as possible so that they can make more money,” Leung told jurors, adding the group wanted to stay ahead of its competitors.
He claimed earlier that the cell therapy, learned from the Guangzhou Military Command’s general hospital on mainland China, was launched in a rush.
But despite efforts to promote the treatment, Leung argued that it was advertised in a secretive way, meaning that the group was well aware of its shortcomings. Staff were instructed to approach loyal customers, not newcomers, and ensure posters were not displayed prominently.
He also suggested that Asia-Pacific Stem Cell Science, the laboratory owned by Chow and engaged to cultivate the blood product to be infused into customers, failed to comply with a reasonable medical manufacturing standard, called GMP, to ensure the safety of the blood products.
The CIK treatment at the laboratory at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park in Tai Po, which has since had its licence revoked, processed the blood to increase a kind of white blood cell.
Two other customers, Wong Ching-bor and Wong Fung-kwan, also suffered from septicaemia, with the former losing both legs and four fingers. Chow’s sister, Chow Yan-yan, was also infected after a blood infusion.
Leung said the same kind of bacteria found in all the patients’ blood – mycobacterium abscessus – was found on two pipette guns, a type of suction equipment, and a centrifugal machine at the lab.
“All these point towards the bacteria infection having originated in the laboratory,” he said.
He said tests, which would normally be run for 14 days, were able to detect bacteria in the drip bags used by Chan and Wong Fung-kwan in slightly more than half a day, meaning the concentration was high.
Antibiotics were added to the blood reintroduced to patients, the court heard, but all such drugs seized by the police and health department were found to be unfit for clinical purposes.
Leung accused Chan Kwun-chung, who was in charge of processing the blood, of being unqualified and failing to establish a proper system. “Chan was going about it by trial and error,” he said, calling the preparation “amateurish”.
Wrapping up his two-day speech, the prosecutor said the focus was not on how much money the group could make by charging HK$59,500 for each treatment, but how such sums should have been used.
“With that sort of money and profit margin, they had all the resources in the world to put in place a safe system … but it was not done,” he said.
The case continues before Mrs Justice Judianna Barnes Wai-ling.