Thousands of embryos, eggs damaged at 2 U.S. fertility clinics after freezers malfunction

FILE - Doctors hands removing embryo samples from cryogenic storage, Fertilized embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen filled tanks to keep them as new if patients require them at a later date. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Over a span of a few days, two separate U.S. fertility clinics may have damaged thousands of frozen eggs and embryos due to a freezer failure, promoting anger and even a class action lawsuit.

On Sunday, a San Francisco fertility clinic told 400 of its patients there was a liquid nitrogen failure in a storage tank holding thousands of frozen eggs and embryos on March 4, according to the Washington Post.

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The Pacific Fertility Center said the problem was discovered by the clinic’s laboratory director, who noticed during a routine check that the level of liquid nitrogen in one of the storage tanks had fallen low, risking damage to tissue housed in vials called cryolocks.

The clinic’s spokesperson, Alden Romney told the Washington Post the eggs and embryos from the troubled tank represent as much as 15 per cent of the total stored at the facility.

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The clinic’s president, Card Gerbert, said patients were emotional when told about the malfunction.

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“Anger is a big part of the phone call,” Herbert told the Washington Post. “Our goal is to provide all the patients we see with some kind of a family. …We need to think: If this tissue doesn’t work, what are the next steps, and have you not feel defeated.”

The extent of the damage is still not clear, according to officials.

According Pacific Fertility’s website, fees for egg-freezing start at US$8,345 for an initial cycle and US$6,995 for subsequent rounds.

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2,000 eggs, embryos damaged at Cleveland clinic

It’s the second failure at a U.S. clinic in a matter of days. On March 8, a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, said more than 2,000 frozen eggs and embryos may have been damaged due to a refrigerator malfunction, affecting around 700 families.

An Ohio family even filed a class action lawsuit against the University Hospitals fertility clinic where officials estimate about 2,000 frozen eggs and embryos may have been damaged by a storage tank malfunction.

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Amber and Elliott Ash told the WEWS News 5 Cleveland they had two embryos stored at the fertility clinic after Elliott’s cancer diagnosis in 2003. The couple has a two-year-old son conceived through in-vitro fertilization, and hoped to bring him a sibling.

The couple received notification of the failure on Friday and were told by physicians that their embryos are no longer viable. They are now seeking an undisclosed amount in damages.

“I find it very hard to believe that in this day and age there are not better safeguards and practices that could be put in place,” Amber Ash told WEWS.

The hospital issued an apology after the unexplained malfunction caused temperatures inside the storage tank to rise.

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“We have initiated an investigation to identify the cause of this event. We are bringing in independent experts to ensure we understand all aspects of this occurrence and do everything possible to address the situation,” the clinic said in a statement.

The law firm that filed the suit, DiCello Levitt & Casey, said it is investigating similar suits against other clinics, including the San Francisco facility that also suffered a storage tank malfunction.

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