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The UK body which regulates IVF treatment is considering tagging embryos to prevent the sort of fiasco which saw mixed-race twins born to white parents after the wrong sperm was used to fertilise the mother's eggs.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) now wants to label all material - sperm, eggs and embryos - with barcodes or RFID tags, New Scientist reports. The plan is intended to eliminate the possibility of mix-ups which are still possible even under the "double-witnessing" protocol which "requires an embryologist to ask a colleague to witness and document every procedure in which an error could occur".

The barcoding procedure - currently under development by IMT International in Chester - uses cameras built into IVF clinic benches to scan a barcode on the bottom of dishes containing eggs. A computer system alerts staff if, for instance, the eggs do not match the patient.

The RFID alternative likewise sounds an alarm when a mismatch occurs. The RFID chips are embedded in the bottom of dishes and "if the samples don’t match [the patient], or you bring together two things that shouldn’t be in the same work area, the alarms will sound," explains Steve Troup, an embryologist on the HFEA’s advisory group on safety and new technologies.

The HFEA will, however, need to be certain that the RFID technology is not damaging to embryos. Research Instruments, a Falmouth-based outfit developing an IVF RDIF tagging system, has tested the technology on mouse embryos without apparent adverse effects. Troup reckons RFID will be safe for in vitro procedures and notes: "The tags only transmit when activated by an external signal. And they work at the low frequency of 13.5 megahertz compared with 900 to 1900 megahertz used by cellphones."

Nonetheless, more testing is planned. Troup’s own research team at the University of Liverpool will further investigate the effects of radio waves on mouse embryos, while Research Instruments is looking into the field strength generated by the RFID tags when active. ®

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