B.C. cancer specialist suspended for using unapproved treatment

A cancer specialist hired to open the new oncology department at the Prince George Cancer Centre has been dismissed for using an unapproved treatment, and is no longer allowed to practice in B.C.
The new B.C. Cancer Agency Centre for the North will be the agency's sixth regional centre, located adjacent to the University Hospital of Northern B.C. (B.C. Cancer Agency)

A cancer specialist hired to open the new oncology facility in Prince George has been suspended for reportedly using an unapproved treatment, and is no longer allowed to practice in B.C.

But the patient's father, a former Conservative MP and at least one colleague are standing up for the doctor, saying the punishment is too harsh because the doctor was just trying to help a terminally ill patient.

Jay Hill, the former MP for Prince George-Peace River, says he and his family are still grieving for their daughter Holly, who just seven weeks ago died from an advanced form of stomach cancer.

"But it doesn't deter us from speaking out," Hill told CBC News. 

Hill says his daughter was treated by Dr. Suresh Katakkar, the chief oncologist at Prince George's cancer centre using a form of therapy not approved by the B.C. Cancer Agency. 

Because of that, Katakkar was temporarily suspended while the agency conducted an investigation. 

Hill says that decision was "cruel." 

"They felt that Holly should just give up and be on palliative care until she passed away," he said. 

"I believe it's a huge disservice to other cancer patients and I think that's just unconscionable."

Katakkar was hired a year and a half ago to head the oncology department for B.C. Cancer Agency's Centre for the North that is set to launch in Prince George this fall.

But in May the B.C. Cancer Agency launched an investigation into Katakkar's treatment of a patient, according to agency vice-president Dr. Charles Blanke.

"Several concerns were brought to our attention regarding Dr. Katakkar's practice," said Blanke.

As a result, Katakkar was temporarily suspended with pay while the investigation was underway. Blanke wouldn't confirm any details of the complaints, but shortly afterwards, Katakkar resigned.

"We actually feel that confidentiality precludes going into any detail," said Blanke.

CBC News has learned Katakkar's licence to practice medicine in B.C. has since been revoked because the B.C. Cancer Agency is no longer willing to sponsor him, although he is still licensed to practice in Arizona.

Dismissal questioned

Katakkar's colleague Dr. Bert Kelly, who is the executive director of the Northern Medical Society, also says the B.C. Cancer Agency's decision was too harsh.

Kelly says the investigation was launched because Katakkar treated a 33-year-old patient the two shared using methods unapproved by the B.C. Cancer Agency.

"She was dying. And her husband and her father approached Dr. Katakkar and asked him if there was anything else."

In a statement to CBC News, Katakkar said he then told the patient and her family about a treatment which used a vaccine made from the patient's body fluid loaded with the cancer cells, which is injected under the skin three times week.

"I morally could not have said to the patient 'nothing could be done'. To get the permission to do something like this would have taken long, long time and patient would not have made that long. So what I did was with the full consent of the patient and the husband and the family and I felt as a physician I am morally obligated to do it..." he said in the statement.

Katakkar said despite signs of improvement the patient eventually died from an infection in her blood stream related to her ongoing chemotherapy, and not because of the vaccine.

Kelly said Katakkar eventually resigned so he could tell his story.

"He is an ultimate humanitarian, you know. And he did it for those principles — I believe that. He was a highly principled man. He went out of his way to put patient care first and foremost

"And I think that's what brought him down," said Kelly. "It's difficult to accept what has happened."