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More than 50 patients lose stem cells held in freezer at Los Angeles hospital after freezer fails


More than 50 patients lost stem cells held in a freezer at a Los Angeles hospital after a system failure.

Blood stem cells collected from 56 patients while they were in early stages of cancer treatment were held in a long-term storage freezer for potential use at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“Earlier this month, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles sent letters to 56 patients and their families to notify them of a freezer malfunction that resulted in the loss of their child’s blood stem cells. No child’s health is in jeopardy due to this incident,” the hospital said in a statement.

When they are not needed, excess cells “remain in storage in the unlikely event that they could become helpful in the future,” the hospital said.

The hospital said temperature sensors in the freezer failed, and safeguards in place at the time “were insufficient.”

“Since that time, we have replaced the freezer that malfunctioned, upgraded our sensor monitoring and alert system, double-checked all power supply sources, increased our maintenance schedule and launched training for the engineering team on the new system," the statement from the hospital said.

“We are very sorry that this loss occurred.”

Even if it does not pose a threat to their health as the hospital stated, some patients are still upset by the loss.

Blood stem-cell harvesting can be a days-long process. Before cells are harvested, patients are given a series of injections over a four-to-five day span, according to the Blood & Marrow Transplant Information Network. Then, a needle is inserted into a vein in each arm, and blood is withdrawn from one arm as a machine separates the stem cells and the rest of the blood is returned to the other arm. Collections can take three to four hours each, and the process may take one to three days.

Sean Anderson Corona, 13, who was diagnosed with Stage Four neuroblastoma, is one of the patients whose blood stem cells were lost. He will be cancer-free for three years as of November, but his family recalled how the process was painful and express worry what may happen if the cancer returns.

“It was painful,” Sean told KABC-TV of the process to retrieve his blood stem cells. “I would try to sleep and my body would just start shaking, and then I just started to freak out and I’d start crying.”

His mother, Elizabeth Anderson, expressed worry that if her son’s cancer returns, doctors may not be able to harvest new stem cells from his blood.

“Once you’re through that whole process of doing all the treatment, you’ve damaged your body,” Anderson told KABC-TV. “That’s how damaging chemo is or the radiation alone. And so it’s the same with the stem cells. He doesn’t have that as an option to just collect more.”