A new lawsuit is expected this week against ait may have accidentally destroyed thousands of frozen embryos. At least one lawsuit has also been filed against another clinic, near Cleveland, where an equipment malfunction may have damaged thousands of frozen eggs or embryos.
Maintaining embryos and eggs for future use is difficult, but there are several practices clinics can follow to reduce the risk and notify doctors if something goes wrong. CBS News' Dr. Tara Narula visited a fertility clinic in Santa Barbara to see how this process works and what can possibly be done to prevent devastating incidents like those we've seen in recent weeks.
Dr. René Allen took CBS News through his lab at the Santa Barbara Fertility Center to show how his clinic keeps its eggs and embryos safe in their frozen tanks.
"There's a sensor here inside the liquid nitrogen so if the levels were to drop too low, maybe to about here, it would then send an alert," Allen explained.
That alert would immediately set off an alarm. If no one is at the lab to answer it, a second alert is sent to several doctors' cellphones. His clinic even maintains backup tanks – one of many safeguards to protect the delicate embryos. While each clinic is different, news of the failure of the tanks at two separate facilities in California and Ohio has rattled the fertility industry.
Katie Miller has been a patient withsince 2009. She is one of about 500 people who received a letter saying that a March 4 malfunction may have affected her embryos.
"I get the chills reading it now. There really are so many questions at this point and hopefully there will be some good news, but at the same time I know there have to be people who have already received probably very devastating news," Miller said.
Attorney Adam Wolf told CBS News he plans to file a class action lawsuit against the San Francisco clinic this week on behalf of the patients. He also filed a second lawsuit against the Abuja Medical Center outside Cleveland.
"This is a tragic loss for anybody," Wolf said. "What the past week has shown us ... is that there needs to be greater regulation, there need to be some more controls so that something like this never happens again."
Dr. Allen told CBS News that he must have licenses from the FDA for tissue donation and for handling embryos and eggs. But he also told us there is no outside regulation on the tanks themselves, leaving doctors to maintain the safety precautions on their own.
Both of the affected fertility clinics did not offer new statements, but told us they are investigating the incidents.