A growing sandal which has seen dozens of women face the heartbreaking loss of a potential child, could spread to other UK fertility clinics. 

Yesterday it was revealed that 136 women who underwent IVF treatment at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust in London may have lost their frozen eggs and embryos.

A problem with the solution used in the freezing process means the precious material women pinned their hopes of having a biological child may not survive the thawing process. 

Regulators have admitted the same solution ‘may have been distributed to other clinics’ raising the prospect of more women and couples being affected. 

Rachel Cutting, director of compliance and information at the HFEA said woman and couples should contact their clinic for more information. 

136 women may have lost their chance to become biological parents with an NHS fertility clinic warning their frozen eggs and embryos may not survive the thawing process due to a fault (stock image)

All the women had eggs or embryos frozen at the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust between September and October 2022

‘We are aware that this affected product may have been distributed to other UK clinics, although the HFEA is currently not aware of any other licensed clinic where patients have been affected,’ she said. 

‘We appreciate any incident may be concerning to patients. 

‘We advise patients to contact their own clinic to raise any queries or concerns as the clinic is best placed to advise individuals on how they may, or may not have been, affected.’ 

Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust PET, a charity representing people affected by infertility, said we must learn if women at other clinics have been affected. 

‘It will be distressing for women with frozen eggs to learn that, due to problems outside their control, their eggs may not survive the thawing process,’ she said. 

‘We need to understand more about what precisely has gone wrong, whether patients at other clinics are affected, and what the relevant regulators – including the HFEA and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency– are doing about it.

‘We also need reassurance, from regulators and clinics alike, that processes are in place to notify patients in a timely way when things go wrong.’ 

She also condemned the delay between Guy’s learning of the problem in March last year, and only informing patients within the last few weeks. 

‘There was an appalling delay of around a year between this problem being known about, and affected patients being notified,’ she said. 

Cancer patients who went on to have their wombs surgically removed are among the women affected.

Treatment for some types of cancer can render women infertile, meaning they can be recommended to get their eggs frozen beforehand. 

News of the blunder was only communicated to patients over the past two weeks.

The hospital, who learned of the error in March last year, blaming the delay in communicating the issue to patients on confusion over which specific batches were affected. 

All the women affected had eggs or embryos frozen at the clinic in the autumn of 2022, between September and October.

The clinic, which boats of being one of the most advanced of its kind in the country, takes on both NHS and private patients, charging the latter thousands of pounds for IVF treatment and hundreds for cryopreservation of eggs and embryos. 

Patient leaflets list the cost of an IVF embryo freeze at £4,750 and an annual cryopreservation storage fee of £350. 

A letter sent to the women, seen by The Times, informed them that their eggs and embryos ‘may not survive the thaw process’ due to a manufacturing glitch with bottles of solution used to originally freeze them.

Only the unit at Guy’s is currently known to be affected.

But Britain’s fertility treatment regulator says the particular product may have been distributed to other UK clinics, meaning more problems could be uncovered in the future. 

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA) is actively investigating the incident.

The delay between the incident occurring and women learning of the fault means some may no longer have additional eggs to freeze, effectively dashing their hopes of ever being a biological parent. 

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

Even those who may still have the option for further IVF treatments could face vastly increased difficulty.

The odds of successful IVF rapidly diminish as women age, from 32 per cent for women under 35, to just 4 per cent for women over 44, declining by about 6 or 7 per cent for every couple of years of age. 

Guy’s has apologised for the delay in communicating the problem and offered the women counselling.

A letter sent to affected patients reads the Trust was ‘made aware of a manufacturing issue with some bottles of a solution that may have been used to freeze eggs and embryos in September and October 2022’, The Times reported.

It continues: ‘This means that there is a risk that eggs and embryos frozen in the affected solution may not survive the thaw process, and may not be able to be used in treatment.’

Guy’s Assisted Conception Unit treats about 2,000 patients a year.

Women caught in the loss of the eggs and embryos say they are devastated. 

One, who spoke anonymously, said: ‘The doctor informed me that the eggs I had frozen are unlikely to be viable, due to a faulty freezing process. It has been devastating.

‘It is traumatising for those poor women to be told their frozen eggs cannot be used.’

She called for Guy’s to cover the cost of further fertility treatment.

A spokesperson for Trust said: ‘We have contacted all of those affected and apologised for the delay in doing so and any distress this may have caused. 

‘We are supporting those who may have been impacted, including through our counselling service, and would urge anyone with concerns to speak to us directly via the dedicated phone line we have set up.’

The conception unit became aware of the problem just weeks after the regulator Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued an alert about problems with the freezing solution. 

The HFEA recorded more than 4,200 egg storage cycles in 2021, almost double the 2,500 in 2019. 

It is thought the number of women freezing their eggs surged during Covid because many feared they were running out of time to have a baby.

The pandemic brought dating 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.

Egg freezing involves following the first steps of IVF, which takes two to three weeks to complete.

Women take drugs to boost their egg production and help eggs mature.

The eggs are then collected under general anaesthetic, mixed with a freezing solution and frozen.

Most patients under 38 have seven to 14 eggs collected. On average, women lose around 1,000 eggs per month. 

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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