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Investigation into fertility clinic worker who switched sperm 'inconclusive'

28 April 2014
Appeared in BioNews 751

A University of Utah committee has concluded its investigation into allegations that in the early 1990s a fertility clinic worker allegedly switched a couple's sperm sample with his own (reported in BioNews 737), stating that it was unclear how the switch occurred and that it cannot rule out cannot whether it could have been done intentionally.

Lab technician Thomas Lippert, now deceased, was hired to work at the University of Utah's Community Laboratory in 1988 until 1993, when, for reasons unknown, his employment ended. The facility was adjacent to the Reproductive Medical Technologies fertility clinic, where Mr Lippert may also have worked. 

Allegations surfaced in 2013 that Mr Lippert had inseminated one of the patients, Pamela Branum, with his own sperm after the family conducted genetic tests that showed that Branum's husband was not the genetic father of their daughter. The family contacted the University of Utah after identifying Mr Lippert as the probable father and it launched a review to investigate the links it had with the clinic and the circumstances around the alleged incident.

The committee, consisting of three university physicians, released its report last week. It notes that Mr Lippert, who had previous convictions for a kidnapping incident, was hired without a background criminal check and was also a registered sperm donor, often processing his own samples. The University apologised to the implicated family for the mix-up.

The Branums have criticised the report's conclusions, however, raising concerns over the evidence reviewed by the committed. 'We are disappointed by what we perceive as a cursory, biased and incomplete investigation on the part of the University of Utah committee', they said in a statement.

'We know that key witnesses who have knowledge relative to the andrology lab at the University of Utah were not interviewed; consequently, we believe the findings are highly questionable'.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, one of the three physicians, Dr Jeffrey Botkin, acknowledged the family's 'legitimate' concern over those not questioned but said that 'the committee chose to talk with people at the University who had direct knowledge of how the clinic functioned at that time'.

Complicating matters further is the fact that after the fertility clinic where the Branum's received treatment closed in 1998, its records were destroyed in 2007. Both Lippert and the former clinic director, Ronald Urry, have also died. Additionally, the university estimates approximately 1,500 patients used the clinic while Lippert worked at the facilities.

The committee recommended to not attempt to contact patients who were receiving treatment at the clinic at the time to warn them of the possible same switch due to the low likelihood of occurrence, the potential burdens versus benefits, and the challenges of accurately identifying all the people affected.

Despite these complications, Sean Mulvihill, CEO of the University of Utah Medical Group, said: 'We are committed to working with families who come forward to determine the truth to extent that we can'.

'This includes continued paternity and genetic testing by an independent lab with the informed consent of family members'.

Since the revelations about the alleged swap, the University has tested five people who used the clinic through an independent laboratory to see whether Lippert had fathered any additional children.

The test did not find other children linked to Lippert, but did uncover a case where a child artificially conceived at one of the now-closed clinics was not the donor selected by the family. This is now under investigation too.

Analysis and Recommendations in the Case of Mr. Thomas Ray Lippert
University of Utah Health Sciences Center Special Review Committee |  21 April 2014
Doctors uncertain whether convicted felon clinic worker who swapped in his sperm for customers' samples did so intentionally as he was also a sperm donor
Daily Mail |  24 April 2014
Family: U. of Utah’s sperm swap probe was ‘biased ... incomplete’
The Salt Lake Tribune |  24 April 2014
Findings from Lippert Investigation Released
University of Utah Health Care (press release) |  24 April 2014
Mystery remains after DNA clears Utah fertility clinic worker
The Salt Lake Tribune |  23 April 2014
University of Utah says sorry for sperm mix-up; family not happy
The Salt Lake Tribune |  23 April 2014
Utah sperm swap 'unacceptable' but still unexplained -university docs
Reuters |  24 April 2014
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