New device promises to reduce fertility clinic storage failures

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By Avichai Scher

In March, storage tank failures at two fertility clinics led to the loss of over 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos, the worst nightmare for people struggling with infertility — and fertility clinics.

After the failures, Dr. Zev Williams, division chief at the Columbia University Fertility Center, which is not one of the clinics that suffered malfunctions, looked for a way to prevent future storage losses.

“Even one failure is too many,” he told NBC News this week.

Dr. Zev Williams, division chief at the Columbia University Fertility Center, using his pinky to lift a storage tank off a high-tech scale created by his team.Avichai Scher / NBC News

His solution? A high-tech scale.

He explained that storage tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen, which helps keep the human tissue at the required freezing temperature. Tank failures generally involve a breach in the insulation or some other tank puncture that allows the nitrogen to seep out. Most fertility clinics now rely on a thermometer in the storage tank that is hooked up to an alarm system. When the temperature starts to rise, an alarm goes off.

However, Williams explained, the nitrogen needs to be close to empty for the temperature to rise. By then, there’s little time to save the frozen tissue.

The high-tech scale Williams and his team created sends an alert when the weight of the tank starts to drop, an indication that nitrogen is leaving the tank. Depending on the size of the tank and severity of the breach, a weight-based alert could give clinics anywhere from a month to a few hours more notice than the temperature system. This would make emergency measures to save the tissue far more likely to succeed, Williams said.

The scale is sensitive to even the slightest change in the weight of the tank.