Freezer malfunction thaws 150 brains at Harvard research hospital

5:31 AM, Jun 12, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS/AP) - A freezer malfunction at a Harvard-affiliated hospital has severely damaged one-third of the world's largest collection of autism brain samples, potentially setting back research by years, scientists said Monday.

An official at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., discovered that the freezer had failed in late May without triggering alarms. Inside, 150 thawed brains had turned dark from decay.

About a third of them were part of a collection of brains of people with autism, with others from people who had died from other neurological conditions including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or psychiatric conditions.

Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center who is investigating the freezer failure, called it "a priceless collection."

"You can't express its value in dollar amounts,'' she told The Boston Globe.

The Globe reports that the samples were supposed to be kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius, but the temperature was 7 degrees, about the same as a refrigerator.

Dr. Carlos Pardo, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, tells the paper that the damage could slow autism research by a decade. The collection is owned by the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks.

In a letter on the Autism Speaks Web site, chief science officer Geri Dawson detailed the extent of the damage, saying 53 brain samples related to autism research were compromised. She said 52 of the samples had been bisected, meaning half were frozen and half preserved in formalin. The 52 remaining hemispheres are still available for research, she said. Some of the affected tissues have already been used in other studies.

"Although this event will affect the availability of tissue for future research, we cannot yet determine the level of impact, but we are confident that we can maintain the momentum of scientific studies based on brain tissue," Dawson wrote.

Dawson went on to say this has never happened in the 35-year history of the tissue resource center - which is funded by the National Institutes of Health - and said the hospital said it is taking steps to ensure it will not happen again.

"Brain tissue donations are precious," Dawson wrote. "We are extremely grateful to the families who made these donations and have been contacting each family affected. We want to ensure that this unfortunate and rare incident will not negatively affect donations in the future."

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