New rules to ensure the safety of frozen sperm, eggs and embryos for use in IVF, have been announced.
Sperm and eggs must be kept properly frozen
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has acted following a number of incidents where samples were lost.
Inadequate monitoring of temperature levels in storage vessels led to samples being irreparably damaged.
By June 2005 all fertility clinics in the UK will have to put measures in place to minimise the risk of further incidents.
In June 2003 a fault in a freezer at Southmead Hospital in Bristol led to the accidental destruction of sperm samples from 28 men whose cancer treatment had possibly left them infertile.
Some of the men are seeking compensation against North Bristol NHS Trust.
All clinics storing frozen sperm, eggs and embryos will be expected to ensure:
- Effective alarms and monitoring systems are fitted to storage vessels
- The alarm system includes a process to alert staff if problems occur outside normal working hours
- Formal emergency procedures are in place for dealing with a freezer incident - including adequate spare storage vessels for transferring samples
- A staff 'on-call' system is in place so that there is always somebody available to carry out these emergency procedures
As an additional measure the samples of patients whose fertility has been impaired by medical treatments, like those used to treat cancer, should be divided between different storage vessels.
Angela McNab, HFEA Chief Executive said: "We have to make sure we take every step possible to safeguard stored material in clinics.
"For cancer patients in particular, this material is so precious because it can be their only chance of having children.
"Patient safety is our top priority at the HFEA and we work constantly with infertility clinics to improve it."
Dr Mohammed Taranissi, director of London's Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre, said sperm, eggs and embryos had to be kept under strictly controlled conditions otherwise they were useless.
He suspected most clinics did not have comprehensive warning systems in place.
"It makes great sense to have these things in place, and I am a bit surprised that the HFEA didn't act even earlier," he said.
"For a man who gets cancer the three or four vials of sperm he puts into storage may represent his only chance of having a family in the future."
Dr Peter Bromwich, a consultant gynaecologist at the London Fertility Centre, told BBC News Online: "I welcome these guidelines, but I am not sure how useful they will be.
"When these systems fail, they very rarely fail gradually, but usually catastrophically, and even if you were in the room at the time you might not be able to do very much about it."
The new storage guidelines are the latest in a series of HFEA initiatives to improve patient safety at UK fertility clinics by sharing information between clinics.
Earlier this year the HFEA formalised its incident alert system which involves the HFEA issuing all clinics with anonymous details of adverse incidents to help avoid mistakes being repeated.
Cancer patients are encouraged to store their sperm, eggs or embryos before undergoing treatment, like chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which can leave them infertile.
Sperm, eggs and embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen at -196°C in storage vessels called dewars.