A refrigeration fault at the fertility clinic at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, UK, has meant that frozen sperm samples from 28 cancer patients have been lost. The samples had all been taken during the past year, before the men underwent cancer treatment that was likely to make them infertile. All 28 samples are now thought to be unusable, after a long-term freeze storage tank, which was chilled using liquid nitrogen, broke down last month. A second freezer bank that contained more than 400 sperm samples donated by men before July 2002 was unaffected.
An inquiry has been launched into what went wrong with the freezer, and why the fault was not detected before the samples were ruined, a hospital spokesman said last week. Tim Lewis, North Bristol clinical director for clinical support, said that the men will be offered additional fertility testing and counselling as appropriate. But many of the men are reported to be considering legal action: 'They are dealing with such precious cargo, surely it should have been protected by some back-up system or alarm to warn if things went wrong' said one. Sue Avery, chair of the Association of Clinical Embryologists (ACE) said that most of the men would qualify for compensation, but it would be calculated on an individual basis. She said also that sperm storage was 'not given high priority' and often struggles for resources.
Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said that 'our priorities are to make sure information and support is provided' and 'to ensure a proper investigation is carried out to identify recommendations, and prevent such an incident recurring'.