Last summer, a group of cancer survivors and others struggling to have children held a memorial service for their “hopes and dreams lost.” That’s the message they had engraved on a bench in the Ohio cemetery where these would-be-parents-who-won’t mourned.
More than 4,000 of their frozen embryos and eggs were destroyed when a high-capacity freezer tank failed at University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland one Saturday in early March 2018. Another thousand were lost the same weekend, after a similar malfunction at an unrelated clinic across the country, Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco.
Some of those affected had made appointments to try to initiate pregnancies the very next week. All had undergone painful procedures and paid, in some cases, thousands of dollars to keep their materials suspended in liquid nitrogen at a constant −196°C. But that weekend in March, tank temperatures began rising, and by the time the Ohio lab technicians returned for their next shift, everything inside had thawed beyond rescue or repair. It’s not clear why remote alarms were turned off; investigations are ongoing. So far, only coordinated cyberattacks have been ruled out.
Similar steel tanks are used by almost 500 fertility clinics nationwide to store millions of reproductive tissues, including eggs, embryos, and sperm. Developed in the 1960s to store livestock semen for breeding, the cryopreservation containers aren’t regulated any better than kitchen appliances or farm tools. In lawsuits, some blame clinic staff for neglecting to refill the nitrogen chambers in these “ever-dependable vessels,” and clinics for failing to adopt more reliable monitoring systems that measure nitrogen levels with a super-sensitive scale that identifies signs of dangerous warming much earlier than the thermometer-based sensors that can only warn hours before it’s too late.