The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is considering the labelling of all embryos, eggs and sperm with 'barcodes' or electronic identification tags, in a bid to prevent mistakes during fertility treatment. The tags would be attached to the base of containers holding the samples, and an alarm would sound if, for example, an attempt was made to fertilise an egg with the wrong sperm. Barcoding technology is already widely used to identify donated blood, reports New Scientist magazine.
In March 2003, a High Court judge ruled that a black man is the legal father of mixed-race twins born to a white couple after the wrong man's sperm was accidentally used in IVF treatment. Although such mix-ups are rare, similar cases have occurred in the US and the Netherlands. The HFEA is now investigating whether barcoding would be a safe way to prevent such mistakes in the future. One system, produced by UK firm Research Instruments, has already been tested on mouse embryos, to find out if the radio waves it uses can harm embryos. Although the tests have not yet been completed, 'it looks very, very good that there's going to be no problem with it', according to technical director David Landsdowne. A similar system is being developed by another British company, IMT International.
An independent report into IVF procedures published last year recommended a double-witnessing system to prevent errors, which involves two people witnessing and documenting every step at which a mix-up could occur. But this is very time-consuming, and so the HFEA's Safety and New Technologies advisory group has been looking for alternatives. The barcoding approach was discussed at the authority's annual meeting, held last month. 'We are always looking for new ways to ensure safety and consistency in laboratory practice', said a spokesman last week. However, he said that there would be no major changes in the short term, adding 'these techniques are still in their infancy'.