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Women hospitalized after cancer 'beauty' treatment goes wrong

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 8:57 PM EDT, Mon October 8, 2012
One of the stores operated by DR, a Hong Kong chain of beauty clinics that claims to serve 1,000 clients a day.
One of the stores operated by DR, a Hong Kong chain of beauty clinics that claims to serve 1,000 clients a day.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hong Kong police investigating beauty clinic after women hospitalized
  • Four women are being treated for septic shock after receiving DC-CIK treatment
  • Treatment is normally only offered to cancer patients, experts said
  • Clinic's founder says clients referred to an independent doctor

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Police are investigating a beauty clinic in Hong Kong after four women were hospitalized with septic shock after receiving a treatment experts say is usually only administered to cancer patients.

Two women, aged 46 and 60, remain in a critical condition after being admitted soon after undergoing the procedure at the DR beauty clinic last Wednesday, according to a statement from the Hong Kong Department of Health. Two other women, aged 56 and 59 are also hospitalized. The younger woman is in a serious condition, while the elder woman is said to be stable.

In a statement from the health department -- which is investigating the matter -- a spokesman said patients had received what's called a DC-CIK treatment, a procedure that involves, "concentration and processing of blood taken from the person, and subsequent infusion of the mixture back into the patient. According to the investigation, the treatment was provided by registered medical practitioner."

Experts contacted by CNN said they had never heard of DC-CIK being used on healthy people.

"Such treatment is only indicated for patients with metastatic cancer and often as salvage therapy when there are no other feasible options," Professor KY Yuen, Chair of Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Microbiology said in an email to CNN.

There's a real possibility that the treatment is a direct cause of the serious illness in the four patients
Dr. Ho Pak-leung

It's not clear whether any of the women had been diagnosed with cancer, though the Hong Kong Health Department said in a statement that at least one woman had been in good health before the treatment.

Dr. Ho Pak-leung, President of the University of Hong Kong's Center for Infection told CNN that he had not heard of any scientific evidence that DC-CIK treatment was useful for cosmetic purposes.

"I have serious doubts about the medical and scientific basis of the treatment," he said.

In a statement, Hong Kong's Health Department said blood samples taken from one of the women showed the presence of Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacterium that can be found in water, soil and dust, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preliminary samples from two other women produced similar findings -- testing is still under way.

Dr. Ho said under normal circumstances the bacterium does not pose a danger to healthy people, and is most commonly seen in superficial wound infections. However, he added that it appears as though it had somehow entered the women's blood.

"There's a real possibility that the treatment is a direct cause of the serious illness in the four patients," he said.

"We don't normally see infection of the blood and internal organs in patients," Dr. Ho said, adding that effectively treating the condition is "very difficult." He said: "Doctors are trying very hard to save the patients who came down with blood infections with this bacteria but there's a lot of uncertainty as to whether those drugs are really effective."

A Hong Kong Health Department spokesman said investigations revealed that the treatment was provided to a total of 44 women, including those hospitalized in the past week.

The hospitalized women were said to have experienced a range of symptoms including headaches, fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

Such treatment is only indicated for patients with metastatic cancer and often as salvage therapy when there is no other feasible option
Professor KY Yuen

As of late Sunday, 12 people had called a special hotline to say that they were also clients of the clinic, but no new cases of septic shock had been reported, the Health Department said.

In response to media questioning on Saturday, the clinic's founder, Dr. Stephen Chow Heung-wing said that his staff referred clients to an independent doctor who administered the therapy, but denied suggestions that it was offered as a medical treatment.

"I didn't said that it can cure any diseases. Remember that, we are a beauty clinic. We refer clients to doctor(s) and we have had the clients to sign a liability-free form, which states that it is not for medical use," he told local media.

CNN phoned Chow's office on Monday but his staff said there would be no further comment. The Health Department said the clinic had been ordered to halt the procedure.

A statement on the beauty clinic's website says that the treatment "was conducted by an independent doctor at a medical clinic, and the doctor is not hired by our beauty store."

The statement also said it was up to the independent doctor to decide whether the client is suitable for treatment before he or she receives it. It added: "We will assist related government departments to find out the causation of this particular incident."

According to its website, the DR group of clinics was established in 1995 and provides services for more than 1,000 clients each day.

Vivian Kam contributed to this report.

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