It is great news that young Nathan Crawford, a nine year old boy from Cornwall with an inoperable brain tumour, may have his ability to have a family in later life preserved by freezing a sample of his testicular tissue.
It has long been known that cancer patients facing chemotherapy or radiotherapy run a high risk of being made infertile by the treatment intended to save their lives. Whilst some may consider this a small price to pay for the chance to live a full life, for others the loss of what may be seen as the very reason for existence, to procreate and have a family of one’s own, is a massive blow. In some cases the psychological effect of winning the battle over cancer only to find that parenthood is no longer an option can be life disrupting, leading to depression, anxiety and distress.
It has long been standard practice where the patient has reached puberty, to store sperm samples before commencing chemotherapy in order to provide a means of preserving the ability to father children if the treatment renders the patient infertile. Now, the preservation of a sample of pre-pubescent testicular tissue is expected to provide a similar option for younger patients. The theory is that in due course the tissue can be re-implanted in the testicle and will generate sperm production naturally.
Such welcome developments in medical science must be set against the background of the poor record of the NHS and some private companies in taking adequate care of such vital samples when preserving them on behalf of patients. Achieving such meaningful advancements in treatment will be of little value if those in control of the freezer storage facilities continue to fail in their duty to maintain samples safely. Over the years simple and avoidable mistakes at storage centres have led to freezer failures and the loss of stored sperm samples. Frozen samples of testicular tissue are vulnerable to the same risks. Cryogenic preservation (freezing) is a relatively simple process in scientific terms and adopting systems which ensure that it functions correctly should be the norm.
Unfortunately experience in Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bristol and various other hospitals in recent years has seen those responsible for storage fall short of their obligations, with patients sadly suffering the loss of samples. The ground breaking cases of Yearworth and others v North Bristol NHS Trust in England and Holdich and others v Lothian Health Board in Scotland, both conducted by Chris Thorne, Partner at Clarke Willmott LLP, have established the right of those patients to be compensated for their loss arising from such failures. It is to be hoped that in the future lessons will be learned and the likes of young Nathan can be assured that preserving their chances of parenthood will be taken seriously by those tasked with their care.