Grand Rapids fertility center reassures patients after equipment malfunctions in Ohio, Calif.

Posted at 9:28 PM, Mar 13, 2018

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Thousands of frozen eggs and embryos are potentially damaged after mechanical problems at fertility clinics in both Cleveland and San Francisco. It's already leading to lawsuits from once hopeful families.

The Fertility Center in Grand Rapids wants to ease the concerns of their patients, saying they have many security measures in place to make sure something like this never happens again.

For 27 years, the center has helped people struggling to start a family on their own.

"Thousands of families have entrusted us with their eggs, embryos and sperm over the last 27 years and we're doing everything in our power to protect them," said Dr. Valerie Shavell, physician of reproductive endocrinology and infertility.

Dr. Shavell says her patients often select to freeze their eggs, sperm or embryos in tanks kept extremely cold with liquid nitrogen.

"We have very stringent protocols in place and we want to reassure our patients that we have their best interests at heart," she said.

That strict protocol hopefully will ensure that situations like those in Cleveland and San Francisco, where thousands of eggs and embryos may have been damaged after nitrogen failures in their storage tanks, don't happen in Grand Rapids.

"We put liquid nitrogen in them, we fill it and we have an alarm that's set up," said Dr. Louise Plante, lab director. "There's a probe that goes in and the temperature with the liquid nitrogen is -196 degrees Celsius [-320 degrees Fahrenheit]."

Dr. Plante showed FOX 17 an empty tank where eggs and embryos are typically stored. She says an alarm on the top alerts staff members when the temperature changes.

"At -150 degrees Celsius the alarm will go off," said Plante.

The alarm would call Dr. Plante and an embryologist. If they don't respond, a physician would be alerted.

"A tank like that once it's filled you could fill it once a month and it would be fine," said Plante. "We fill it every week just to make sure. If the eggs and embryos were completely thawed they cannot be used."

The tanks are replaced every 10 years, even though they could likely last longer. The Fertility Center has never had an incident like this happen here and says they're continuing to work to make sure it never does.

"Our hearts go out to all the families that are potentially affected by the thawing of these embryos and eggs," said Shavell. "I think it'll be interesting to find out the reasoning behind why this mishap happened so we can prevent similar things from happening in the future."

There's no word yet on whether the clinics in Ohio and California are going to redo these procedures for the willing and able patients, but many of them have filed lawsuits. The only way to find out if any of those potentially affected embryos are still viable would be to thaw them and implant them. Unfortunately if they were damaged, it may be too late for some families.

The doctors at The Fertility Center say many people undergoing treatment for cancer will freeze their eggs or sperm before undergoing radiation.

The cause of the malfunctions in Ohio and California remains under investigation.