Thousands more families were affected by the failure at a Cleveland fertility center than previously thought.
The University Hospitals Fertility Center has now admitted 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos were damaged beyond repair, despite saying 2,000 when the scandal emerged three weeks ago.
Around 1,000 families will soon receive letters from the hospital informing them that they too lost their eggs, due to ‘human error’. Initially, it was a group of 600.
The news follows a wave of families filing lawsuits against the hospitals, seeking millions of dollars in damages. Some patients have had their eggs stored for years if not decades.
While it is not clear yet what led to this malfunction – or to the near-identical fault that damaged 400 embryos at San Francisco’s Pacific Fertility Center in the same week – Cleveland officials told NBC News today that an alarm system on the tanks was shut off, likely by a person.
The University Hospital in Ohio and another fertility clinic in San Francisco experienced equipment failures on the same day that may have damaged hundreds of frozen eggs and embryos, something that a fertility expert called a stunning coincidence
HOW DOES EGG FREEZING WORK?
Women inject high levels of hormones for a week in order to ovulate as many eggs as possible. Patients typically have to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for these.
This hormone is called AMH (Anti-Mullerian Hormone), which is secreted in the ovarian follicles.
AMH levels are a marker of one’s fertility: women with a high level are likely to produce more eggs.
The patient’s doctor will perform a blood test to check their AMH levels and determine the exact concentration of hormones they need.
After about 10 days, the patient comes in for their retrieval.
The patient will be immediately told how many eggs were retrieved.
At most clinics, patients with fewer than 12 eggs will then have an option: to settle with that or to pay for another cycle.
It costs around $450-a-year for egg storage.
The center has ruled out inappropriate access to the tank area, and did not identify anyone as complicit. However, investigations into the malfunction suggest a person was actively involved in affecting the tank.
The crisis at both centers, which fertility experts have called a stunning coincidence, is already producing lawsuits from crestfallen couples.
The first blunder, announced last week, involved a storage tank malfunction on March 4 at University Hospital’s storage center in suburban Cleveland, with as many as 2,000 frozen eggs and embryos possibly damaged.
A San Francisco fertility clinic said thousands of frozen eggs and embryos may have been damaged in a liquid nitrogen failure in a storage tank on the same day.
At least two families have already come forward with lawsuits against UH – Amber and Elliott Ash, of the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, and an unidentified couple from Pennsylvania.
Lawyers for the couples who went to the Ohio clinic are seeking class action status, which would require approval from a judge.
The Ashes said they stored two embryos at a University Hospitals fertility clinic in suburban Cleveland after Elliott’s cancer diagnosis in 2003. They said they were told over the weekend that their embryos are no longer viable.
‘It’s heartbreaking, just heartbreaking,’ Amber Ash told WEWS-TV. ‘The medical community calls it tissue. I like to think of it as my children.’
The couple has a two-year-old son conceived through in-vitro fertilization and hoped to bring him a genetic sibling.
‘With this lawsuit, we will get answers and stop this from happening again,’ said Mark DiCello, an attorney for the Ashes.
The Pennsylvania couple was beginning to set up a time last week for transferring a frozen embryo to the woman’s womb when they later were told something went wrong, attorneys said.
They had spent eight years trying to become parents and were devastated, attorney Lydia Floyd said.
University Hospitals officials said that they are determined to help the patients who lost eggs and embryos, and that the lawsuit will not affect an independent review.
Dr Carl Herbert, president of the Pacific Fertility Clinic in San Francisco, told ABC News in an interview released Monday that a senior embryologist noticed the nitrogen level in one tank was very low during a routine check of the tanks March 4.
That embryologist, Herbert said, ‘immediately rectified’ the problem by refilling the tank. The embryos, he said, were later transferred to a new tank.
As of early March, the clinic was sending letters to about 500 patients ‘that may have been involved in this tank,’ Herbert said. It has put in place more failsafe measures to prevent a repeat.
Dr Kevin Doody, lab director at the Center for Assisted Reproduction in Texas and past president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, told The Associated Press that the nearly simultaneous storage failures are ‘beyond stunning’ but appear to be ‘just a bad, bad, bad coincidence.’
‘It’s two black swan events happening in the same day,’ he said. ‘One of them causes the beehive to buzz. Two? We’re all in shock,’
Nobody knows so far of any connection between the two failures, he said.
The industry in the long run will end up being safer because there will be investigations and other facilities will examine their own backup measures and alarm Vsystems, he said.
Video courtesy WKYC