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Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 18:17 GMT
Fears over 'damaged' sperm samples
The samples were taken from patients
A faulty freezer could have cost hundreds of cancer sufferers the chance to have children later in life, it has emerged.

An Edinburgh hospital has warned that sperm samples taken from almost 300 patients may have been damaged.

The samples were banked at the Western General Hospital because of the risk that the men's treatment could lead to infertility.

However, a technical problem with a liquid nitrogen supply to a freezer at the hospital was discovered last year after the temperature had risen above recommended levels.

This will be extremely upsetting for people who are already coming to terms with the anxiety of having treatment for cancer

Helen Torr
Child spokeswoman
Approximately 5,000 ampoules of sperm samples provided by 296 men before 6 July last year had been in storage.

The patients had given samples prior to treatment for testicular cancer, leukaemia, lymphoma or pituitary gland failure.

There is thought to be a slight risk that the genetic content of the samples may have been damaged due to the fault with the freezer.

Lothian University Hospitals NHS Trust said expert advice about the effects of the temperature rise were inconclusive.

However, a spokeswoman admitted there was "a risk that the integrity of the stored sperm could have been compromised".

Potential consequences

The trust said the use of frozen sperm samples from cancer patients was a relatively new science, which meant that there was not enough research evidence to accurately predict the potential consequences for pregnancy.

However, Helen Torr, a spokeswoman for fertility support group Child, said the situation could be potentially devastating for couples.

"There is a real danger that if these patients' sperm has been damaged or 'compromised' as they say, their chance of having a child either now or in later life will have been lost.

"This will be extremely upsetting for people who are already coming to terms with the anxiety of having treatment for cancer.

The patients underwent treatment at the hospital
"Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are known to make men sterile in some cases, which is the reason many men are encouraged to deposit sperm," she said.

The problem has affected samples collected between 14 December 1979 and 6 July 2001.

The trust said that patients whose samples were collected after that date had no cause for concern.

A fault with the liquid nitrogen supply to the freezer tank allowed the temperature to rise above the optimal level for long-term storage for up to two days.

The trust's associate medical director Dr Euphemia McGoogan said staff were "extremely upset" by the incident

A number of patients will already have had children and may not have further interest in these samples

Dr Charles Swainson
Medical director
"We regret very deeply the anxiety it will cause a large number of patients who have banked with us.

"These patients have been through a lot already because they were mainly patients treated for cancer," she said.

The trust said human error or negligence had not been to blame for the incident.

Measures have now been put in place to prevent a repeat, it stressed.

The trust has been contacting patients to offer support and information.

The spokeswoman added that the incident was being made public because "of an unfortunate breach of confidentiality" and said 60 of the patients had not yet been contacted.

Normal fertility

All patients involved came from the Edinburgh area, although many have since moved away.

The trust's medical director, Dr Charles Swainson said those affected would be offered advice from a fertility expert if they wanted to use the sperm samples in the future.

"Studies have shown a very large number regain their normal fertility after cancer treatment and those that required radiology also recovered fertility," he said.

"So a number of patients will already have had children and may not have further interest in these samples."

An advice line for patients has been set up on 0800 015 2154.

BBC Scotland's Nigel Robson reports
"Changes in storage procedures have already been introduced"
See also:

28 Feb 00 | Health
Sperm boost may aid fertility
02 Mar 00 | Health
Sperm count fall blamed on salt
02 Jan 00 | Health
Hope for infertile men
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