Image: DrKontogianniIVF

A medical lab in the Netherlands is admitting that a “procedural error” may have caused upwards of 26 women to have their eggs fertilized with the wrong sperm.

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The University Medical Center in Utrecht (UMC) said the error took place over several months between April 2015 and November 2016, and that half of the women who underwent IVF treatment during that time are either pregnant or have already given birth to their babies. All couples have been informed of the potential mix up, the medical center said.

“During fertilization, sperm cells from one treatment couple may have ended up with the egg cells of 26 other couples,” the center said in a statement, adding that “there’s a chance that the egg cells have been fertilized by sperm other than that of the intended father.” The UMC says the chance of an actual mix up is small, but the possibility “could not be excluded.”

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The technique at the center of this mistake is called intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), and it differs slightly from conventional IVF in that a single sperm cell is injected into a woman’s egg using a pipette. For a period of seven months, a lab technician used a tainted pipette to inject the sperm. While a new pipette was used each time, he failed to replace the rubber top, which was accumulating sperm cells from prior procedures. Given that the UMC conducts about 700 ICSI procedures each year, there is justifiable cause for concern.

All potentially affected couples will be meeting with doctors in the coming days, and will be asked if they want to do a DNA test to determine the father.

Sadly, this sort of thing does happen, but not usually at this scale. Back in 2012, a mother from Singapore sued a clinic after a similar mix up, and in 2014 a white mother in Ohio sued a sperm bank for mixing up her husband’s sperm with an African-American donor. Makes you wonder how often these mistakes happen—and how often nobody notices.

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[Deutsche Welle, BBC]