Early this month, Elliot and Amber Ash received a phone call from a family member that has changed their lives.
Something happened at their fertility clinic where their frozen eggs were being stored.
A successful embryo transfer resulted in the birth of their son, who is now 2½ years old. So the couple put their two additional embryos “on ice” at University Hospitals Fertility Center in Beachwood, Ohio, hoping to give their son a genetic sibling in the future.
That plan may have changed.
The family member who called the Ashes that day notified them of a news report about a storage bank malfunction at University Hospitals, in which embryos and eggs may have been compromised.
In an interview with Healthline, Amber Ash said she at first felt “disbelief” when she was contacted by her relative because “we hadn’t been notified by the hospital at that point.”
The Ashes called a clinic hotline a few days later and University Hospitals was “able to confirm that our two embryos were impacted by this malfunction.”
That same day, the Ashes received an official letter informing them of the malfunction and the possibility that their embryos were damaged.
“I personally would’ve liked to have received a phone call [from the clinic],” Amber Ash said. “Or, at the very least, the letters that the hospital sent out should have been sent in a way that families received them prior to this being in the media.”
The next day, physicians from University Hospitals “were able to tell us that they did not believe our embryos were viable anymore,” Ash said. “It was just shocking.”
The Ashes are one of the 700 patients who lost a total of 2,000 eggs and embryos in the University Hospitals incident.
That same weekend, the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco also suffered a malfunction. The incidents are believed to be unrelated.
‘Pure anger and frustration’
The storage bank in which the eggs and embryos are kept experienced an “unexpected temperature fluctuation,” a statement by University Hospitals issued a few days after the incident explained.
The affected tank had an audible alarm, which was going off when clinic staff arrived the following morning, according to Cleveland.com.
No one was at the clinic overnight when the alarm began to sound.
“We have already initiated contact with all of our patients to inform them and respond to their questions, and set up a designated call center to arrange personal meetings or calls with their physicians,” University Hospitals’ statement said.
A spokesperson for Pacific Fertility Center declined an interview with Healthline but said in a statement:
“On March 4, a single piece of equipment in our cryo-storage laboratory lost liquid nitrogen for a brief period of time. We do know that there is viable tissue from that tank. The rest of the tanks were not affected. The equipment was immediately retired, the vast majority of the eggs and embryos in the lab were unaffected, and the facility is operating securely. As soon as the issue was discovered, our most senior embryologists took immediate action to transfer those tissues from the affected equipment to a new piece of equipment.”
The statement added, “We are truly sorry this happened and for the anxiety that this will surely cause.”
The Ashes are one of nearly 50 families who have joined a class-action lawsuit against University Hospitals, Robert DiCello, their lawyer, told Healthline.com.
His firm has been in contact with the clinic to discuss next steps.
“It’s been a mixed bag of emotions for us,” Amber Ash said. “[We are] just trying to make sense of the circumstances that have occurred over the past week regarding the tragedy. We’ve gone from pure anger and frustration to [sadness at] the loss that surrounds having lost our two embryos.”
Still, the couple hopes to use their loss to “be a voice for all the families affected by this senseless tragedy,” Ash said.
Their hope is to use their platform to improve “regulations surrounding infertility clinics,” she explained.
‘We don't know why these tanks failed’
The loss of embryos and eggs can be devastating to the families affected.
In fact, fertility clinic storage tanks have failed in the past.
“Tanks have failed multiple times all over the world,” said Barry Behr, PhD, HCLD, director of the IVF Laboratory at Stanford University. “They are mechanical devices, many of them, and no mechanical device is perfect and never fails.”
The materials are stored using cryopreservation, meaning they were frozen and could be thawed for later use.
As the Cleveland Clinic explained, the two methods to freeze eggs and embryos are slow freezing, which happens gradually, or vitrification, which happens more quickly.
In both methods, the frozen materials are stored in liquid nitrogen.
“[Tanks are] essentially a giant thermos that holds a liquid — in this case, liquid nitrogen — in a very insulated container without being cold on the outside,” explained Behr.
Since nitrogen boils at room temperature, maintaining insulation is important, Behr told Healthline.
“It’s two layers of aluminum or steel that’s insulated in between by a vacuum layer,” he explained. “If the vacuum is violated or penetrated or in any way compromised, it could result in lack of insulation and you would then get a more rapid deterioration of the conditions,” because the liquid nitrogen would evaporate “much more rapidly.”
Therefore, the thawing process for eggs and embryos must be done carefully.
“When a tank warms up, it will compromise its contents just like your freezer at home,” said Behr. “If you have meat in the freezer, you know if it warms up and refreezes again, this is not good. And the same is true for embryos.”
An egg is a single cell, while embryos are 100 cells at most.
“If any amount — when you have so few cells — get damaged, you can seriously compromise the viability of the embryo,” Behr explained.
It is not yet known why the affected tanks lost liquid nitrogen. Both University Hospitals and the Pacific Fertility Center said they will enact independent investigation to determine what happened.
Average-sized tanks can store the materials of roughly 100 patients, while larger tanks may hold materials for several thousand patients, Behr said.
Many patients will store multiple eggs or embryos at a time.
Theoretically there is a 200-year limit on storage for eggs and embryos, according to Behr. Since IVF only came into existence in recent decades, the scientific community does not know exactly how long they can be safely stored.
Like the Ash family, patients pay an annual fee, typically around $400 to $500, to keep their eggs or embryos in storage.
Embryos and eggs are put in storage for a variety of reasons, such as couples establishing their careers, recovery from an illness, or spacing out the births of previous children.
Although the Ash family intended to undergo IVF at a future date, the status of the other clients with compromised eggs and embryos in Ohio and California aren’t fully known yet.
Some had been in storage since the 1980s and may never have been used.
“We don’t know why these tanks failed,” said Behr, adding that both are well-regarded fertility clinics with reputable programs. “Was it a failure in oversight? Or was it an act of God? Or was it a mechanical failure that no one could do anything about?”
“At this point, we don't know. Was it correctable, was it salvageable?” he asked.
Right now, there is little to console the Ash family. Fertility clinics may view their materials as “tissue,” Amber Ash said, but their family saw their two embryos “as our children.”
For now, she said, “we’re still trying to wrap our heads around this senseless loss.”