The heartbreaking egg-freezing scandals that show how vulnerable IVF and fertility treatments are to error

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Two heartbreaking egg-freezing scandals that might have robbed women of ever becoming biological mothers prove how vulnerable fertility procedures are to error, experts have warned. 

Homerton Fertility Centre had its licence suspended and was reported to the police earlier this month after ‘errors’ in its freezing processes led to some embryos ‘either not surviving or being undetectable’.

Another London fertility centre, at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust, last month admitted the eggs and embryos of 136 of its patients may never be viable after it used a faulty solution during the freezing process.

Reacting to the cases, Dr Bassel Wattar, a consultant in reproductive medicine from Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust, told MailOnline: ‘So many things can go wrong.

‘In a ideal world, every lab should have a failsafe sort of procedures and mechanism.

The pandemic brought dating in-person to a halt for single women for months at a time, leaving some unsure when they would meet the right partner to start a family. Rising numbers of celebrities have also opted for the procedure, including Kourtney Kardashian , Rita Ora and Vicky Pattison (pictured) 

Homerton Fertility Centre, based at Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, had its licence suspended and was reported to the police earlier this month after 'errors' in its freezing processes led to some embryos 'either not surviving or being undetectable'

Homerton Fertility Centre, based at Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, had its licence suspended and was reported to the police earlier this month after ‘errors’ in its freezing processes led to some embryos ‘either not surviving or being undetectable’

Another London fertility centre, at Guy’s and St Thomas' Trust (pictured), last month admitted the eggs and embryos of 136 of its patients may never be viable after it used a faulty solution during the freezing process

Another London fertility centre, at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust (pictured), last month admitted the eggs and embryos of 136 of its patients may never be viable after it used a faulty solution during the freezing process 

Jessop Fertility clinic in Sheffield, attached to Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has been named as the second clinic affected by problems with the freezing liquid. Although none were actually given the 'faulty' product, a spokesperson insisted

Jessop Fertility clinic in Sheffield, attached to Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has been named as the second clinic affected by problems with the freezing liquid. Although none were actually given the ‘faulty’ product, a spokesperson insisted

Currently, the fertility treatment has a success rate of up to 40 per cent. Around a third of IVF cycles among under-35s resulted in a live birth in 2019 in the UK. Yet this dropped to just 4 per cent in over-44s

Currently, the fertility treatment has a success rate of up to 40 per cent. Around a third of IVF cycles among under-35s resulted in a live birth in 2019 in the UK. Yet this dropped to just 4 per cent in over-44s

‘Every lab should be have very robust monitoring and surveillance strategies, regular reviewing of their operational procedures, and so on. 

‘But in these cases they failed.’

He added: ‘People think IVF is a one stop treatment. But really it’s often downplayed how hard it is both on patients, and then the health care provider.’

The average egg freezing package stands around £4,000, and is not always offered on the NHS. 

Storage costs are also extra and vary between clinics. On average this falls between £15 and £350 annually.

It is thought the number of women freezing their eggs surged during Covid because many feared they were ‘running out of time’. 

The pandemic brought dating in-person to a halt for single women for months at a time, leaving some unsure when they would meet the right partner to start a family.

Rising numbers of celebrities have also opted for the procedure, including Kourtney Kardashian, Rita Ora and Vicky Pattison.

Egg freezing forms a vital part of IVF, itself a procedure that can cost up to £5,000 per cycle. 

IVF is already a delicate process, with success rates rapidly diminishing as women age, from 32 per cent for women under 35, to just four per cent for women over 44.

Professor Ying Cheong, a specialist in reproductive medicine from the University of Southampton, told MailOnline the cases ‘expose’ the fact there are ‘incidents where harm can result’. 

Bosses were accused of a ‘cover up’ at Homerton Fertility Centre after it was forced to close over fears dozens of embryos were unexpectedly destroyed.

Documents reportedly show the facility and IVF regulator were aware some embryos weren’t surviving the freezing process as expected last June. Yet the site continued to operate as usual until March 8.

At least 153 embryos, representing the hopes of 45 patients, are feared to have been destroyed. But the real total could be higher, whistleblowers fear.

Among those affected are cancer patients who froze embryos before undergoing treatment that could make them infertile.

The suspension, valid until May 2024, means the unit will not be able to accept any new bookings for treatment but existing patients can still access its services. 

Britain’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said it had suspended the centre’s licence to operate with immediate effect because of ‘significant concerns about the clinic’. 

Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust officials said they had identified three ‘incidents’ within the unit that led to errors in a ‘small number’ of freezing processes.

Bosses did not explain what they were. 

However, the centre said it had increased security and made staff ‘work in pairs’ after concerns were raised about unsupervised access to storage areas for eggs, sperm, and embryos.

It was not the first time the trust had come under fire following concerns about fertility treatment. 

An inspection in August 2019 found women were at risk of swabs being left inside their bodies during egg collection because staff were not following best practice.

The HFEA also received further complaints about the clinic’s leadership between 2021 and 2022, as well as warnings about working conditions, welfare, training, decision making and non-reporting of incidents.

Last month, 136 women who underwent treatment at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust in London also discovered they may have lost the chance to ever have their own biological children because of an issue with one specific batch of preservation liquid.

Another clinic in Sheffield was also revealed to be involved in the scandal, with 29 women there caught up in the scare.

Although none were actually given the ‘faulty’ product, a spokesperson insisted.

A manufacturing error by US company CooperSurgical meant a specific batch of the product contained ‘mislabelled vials’. 

It means some bottles — although not all of them — would contain the wrong type of solution.

This meant that any treated eggs and embryos could be rendered unviable during thawing. 

Not all of the bottles of the solution from the affected batch, which had an expiration date of November 2022, will have been faulty.

Some women at Guy’s, which took just under a year to tell patients of the issue, may have no viable eggs left to freeze for future IVF due to their age. 

Significant incidents, like the mishandling of eggs or embryos that significantly compromise a cycle, occur once every 2,156 cycles, according to one 2018 US IVF study, which tracked one laboratory over 12 years. 

Moderate problems, which may reduce the chance of success for a cycle, happened once every 555 cycles. 

HFEA figures for 2022/23 on the number of IVF incidents logged annually show there have been no ‘Grade A’ reports since 2020. 

These can include when a woman is implanted with the wrong embryo or storage unit malfunctions.  

A total of 500 incidents and 89 near misses were recorded, however, with nearly half classed as ‘Grade B’ – ‘serious harm to one person’ or ‘moderate harm to many’. Such incidents include the loss of embryos for one patient or confidentiality breaches. 

It marks a hike of more than a third on those reported a decade earlier, when grade B accounted for 166 of 465 total incidents. There were two Grade A. 

In 2017/2018, for comparison, 116 of the 418 were grade B. None were Grade A.   

The Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists (ARCS) has acknowledged ‘unintended incidents can and will happen’. 

Professor Jackson Kirkman-Brown, its chair, said: ‘Despite all the measures in place, all handling events still carry an element of risk. 

‘Reproductive scientists are human, and there will be times when incidents occur involving potential damage or loss of gametes and/or embryos.’

Rachel Cutting, director of compliance and information at the HFEA, said: ‘Fertility treatment is a medical procedure and like any medical intervention carries risks.

‘The UK model of fertility regulation is internationally regarded.’

HFEA figures for 2022/23 on the number of IVF incidents logged annually show there have been no 'Grade A' reports since 2020. These can include when a woman is implanted with the wrong embryo or storage unit malfunctions. A total of 500 incidents and 89 near misses were recorded, however, with nearly half classed as 'Grade B' – 'serious harm to one person' or 'moderate harm to many'. Such incidents include the loss of embryos for one patient or confidentiality breaches

HFEA figures for 2022/23 on the number of IVF incidents logged annually show there have been no ‘Grade A’ reports since 2020. These can include when a woman is implanted with the wrong embryo or storage unit malfunctions. A total of 500 incidents and 89 near misses were recorded, however, with nearly half classed as ‘Grade B’ – ‘serious harm to one person’ or ‘moderate harm to many’. Such incidents include the loss of embryos for one patient or confidentiality breaches 

Experts, however, have urged the HFEA to implement ‘robust measures’ such as vetting IVF products and automated checks in the wake of the scares. 

‘The key thing is there’s currently no guidance on where the products for each lab are being sourced,’ Dr Wattar said.

‘The HFEA does occasionally give warnings about faulty products. 

‘So, for example, when an egg collection needle has been flagged by a provider that is causing damage.

‘This is helpful, but this only happens after an error has happened,’ he added. 

It comes as MailOnline last year revealed that two-thirds of the UK’s 75 fertility clinics offered unproven and potentially risky IVF add-ons.

Some even flogged the extra treatments costing hundreds of pounds without clearly warning desperate couples that they might not work.

Add-ons offered by 13 clinics include ‘assisted hatching’, labelled ‘red’ by the fertility regulator.

It is claimed the technique, which can cost up to £600 and uses acid or lasers, helps an embryo ‘hatch’ out of its protective layer of proteins to implant itself in the lining of the uterus.

Not all add-ons have potential health risks to the mothers and their children, but the financial set backs can become an unshakable burden for desperate families.

What is egg freezing? And is it safe? Everything you need to know about the procedure 

How many women freeze their eggs?

Statistics released at the end of last year revealed lockdowns during Covid led to an egg-freezing boom among women fearful of running out of time to have a baby.

Figures showed 1,874 women froze their eggs in the UK in 2020 – a number which has nearly doubled since 2015 when 945 women opted for the procedure.

Why do they do it? And how much does it cost?

Egg freezing is one way of preserving a woman’s fertility so she can try to have a family in the future, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

It involves collecting a woman’s eggs, freezing them and then thawing them later on so they can be used in fertility treatment.

Some cancer patients are advised to freeze their eggs before starting treatment.

Eggs are frozen and then thawed before being fertilised.

With frozen embryos, the eggs are fertilised before being preserved. This usually happens after IVF so none get wasted.

The average cost of having eggs collected and frozen is £3,350, with medication costing up to £1,500 extra and storage up to £350 a year.

Is it best to freeze when you’re young?

If women freeze their eggs when they are younger, the eggs are typically better quality.

Therefore, they are more likely to lead to a pregnancy when women use them for IVF later in life.

Egg-freezing is therefore increasingly popular among single women, or those deferring motherhood to focus on their career.

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