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In Our Hands: Embryologists as Guardians of Life & The Necessity of Redundancy

Thomas Elliott

11 May 2023

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Thomas Elliott is an Embryologist and inventor of CryoSentinel, the Thermographic Monitoring System for Cryogeninc Storage.

As embryologists, we are not mere laboratory professionals; rather, we serve as guardians, safeguarding the early stages of life. We care for cells that embody the dreams and aspirations of countless families. However, like any field, ours is not immune to unexpected events. Consider the recent, unimaginable instance of air traffic control malfunction in the United States, which led to the cancellation of over 1,300 flights and delays for almost 10,000 others. This event took place on January 10th, 2023, due to a failure of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, a critical component in ensuring flight safety and smooth operations. Just a single point of failure in this system was responsible for the nation-wide disruptions. This event underscores the potential hazards associated with the absence of backup systems and provides us with an impactful lesson. As custodians of irreplaceable reproductive cells, we are duty-bound to provide our patients with the highest quality care, which includes implementing robust, redundant systems to guard against such scenarios.

Building Redundancy: The Backbone of IVF Labs

Redundancy is crucial to the safety and success of IVF labs. It permeates various aspects of the lab, including:

  • Power Supply: Labs should have multiple, independent power sources to guarantee continued operation even in case of a single source failure.
  • Incubators: Multiple incubators are a must as they culture embryos under optimal conditions. An incubator's failure could result in a loss of developing embryos.
  • Gas supply: To maintain appropriate levels of CO2 and oxygen in incubators, gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen, among others, are needed. These gases must be supplied consistently to achieve the necessary balance, even in the face of potential resupply delays.
  • Liquid Nitrogen Storage: Given its use in storing embryos, any failure in the storage system can lead to a loss of embryos. Hence, backup storage vessels (equal or greater than the capacity of your largest storage container), and additional liquid nitrogen supply are essential.
  • Equipment: Backup equipment, such as microscopes integral to the IVF process, must be readily available.
  • Staff: Adequate backup staff is crucial to ensure uninterrupted processes, even in the event of an unexpected absence.

Cryostorage: A Redundancy Imperative

Redundancy serves as a crucial safeguard in the preservation and monitoring of reproductive materials. Sperm, eggs, and embryos are preserved in liquid nitrogen cryostorage tanks at extremely low temperatures to prevent degradation and maintain viability. The cryogenic temperatures are upheld by a simple vacuum, a failure of which could lead to disastrous consequences. Thus, redundancy in monitoring and maintenance systems is paramount to prevent such failures and ensure the continued integrity of these precious biological assets.

Monitoring Systems: Our Technological Sentry

Even the most sophisticated monitoring systems in IVF labs can possess a single point of failure, potentially rendering them useless. Potential failure points for cryogenic storage monitoring systems include:

  • Sensor malfunction: Failure or malfunctioning of sensors measuring temperature inside the cryogenic storage container can lead to inaccurate or absent readings.
  • Communication failure: The monitoring system might fail to communicate with the control system, leading to a loss of data or control.
  • Power outage: A disrupted power supply to the monitoring system might compromise its functionality.
  • Software failure: Software used to monitor and control cryogenic storage might fail due to bugs or other issues.
  • Human error: Operator or maintenance personnel mistakes, such as improper sensor calibration, sensor positioning or misconfiguration of the monitoring system, can lead to system failures.
  • Equipment failure: Equipment used to store and transport cryogenic materials can fail or malfunction, leading to containment loss.
  • Security breaches: Unauthorized access to the storage facility or monitoring system can lead to tampering or sabotage, causing system failures or containment loss.
  • Maintenance issues: Negligent or improper maintenance of the monitoring system or cryogenic storage equipment can trigger failures or malfunctions.

Response Time: A Critical Countdown

The monitoring methods employed in our work deliver varying response times. To illustrate, in a 47L Dewar, the time span between alerts and critical glass temperature can range from a comfortable 20 hours (Thermographic monitoring) to a scant 1 hour, as with traditional monitoring systems, potentially leaving insufficient time to reach the lab and salvage samples (Pomeroy, et al. 2019. J Assist Reprod Genet. 2019 Nov;36(11):2271-2278. doi: 10.1007/s10815-019-01597-5.Epub 2019 Oct 24. | THERMOGRAPHIC IMAGING: A BREAKTHROUGH INVENTION PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE AND RELIABLE CRYOGENIC STORAGE MONITORING. Dr. Zsolt Peter Nagy ).

Redundancy: Raising the Bar

To circumvent these risks, additional redundant systems can be implemented. These systems, utilizing alternative methods for monitoring and alerting users in the event of a potential issue, can sometimes detect failures even earlier due to their distinct monitoring approach.

Choosing Your Monitoring System: Striking a Balance

When considering additional monitoring, several factors must be weighed. Typically, hard-wired systems are less susceptible to interference or signal loss compared to their wireless counterparts, which are more cost-effective and easier to install. However, one must also factor in potential failure points that might arise during natural disasters or human-induced catastrophes, such as extreme weather conditions. Currently, liquid nitrogen dewar monitoring systems employ one or more of the following: internal temperature probes, external temperature sensors, liquid nitrogen level sensors, weight sensors, or modern technology such as thermographic monitoring. Each option has its unique set of pros and cons.

CryoSentinel: Pioneering Cryostorage Monitoring

CryoSentinel is designed with a specific purpose in mind: to provide advanced monitoring for cryogenic storage vacuum failure. By leveraging thermography (also known as thermal imaging, a technique that uses infrared radiation to visualize and measure temperature variations on the surface of an object or in an environment) CryoSentinel will detect even the earliest signs of vacuum degradation, long before catastrophic failure occurs. Its extreme sensitivity allows for early warnings of potential problems, giving users valuable time to prevent fatal loss of irreplaceable materials. When used in combination with standard internal dewar sensors like temperature, weight, or level, CryoSentinel creates a faster, more robust and comprehensive system. This integration allows for a complete understanding of the system's health and enables users to take proactive measures to protect patient cells. CryoSentinel's state-of-the-art thermographic systems offer a faster response time to dewar failure allowing for time to move samples to safety. The visual thermographic representation of the cryo storage, both locally and remotely, provides users with an easy-to-understand view of the system's health and allows for quick identification of vacuum loss.

In Summary

Our collective understanding of our responsibility is profound. Every day, we manage the earliest stages of potential lives—each one invaluable and irreplaceable. It's essential to remember that our mission transcends mere compliance with minimum standards. It's about striving for excellence. It's about fostering peace of mind—for us as professionals and for the families we serve. As we embrace technology and continually refine our practices, let redundancy be our guiding principle. With safety measures like spare storage tanks and advanced monitoring systems, we can ensure that we are doing everything within our power to protect the precious life we've been entrusted to care for.

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Date Added: 11 May 2023   Date Updated: 11 May 2023
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