A freezer failure at the world’s largest brain tissue bank has damaged nearly 150 stored brains, including one-third of those used in autism research, potentially delaying discoveries in the field for years.
The federally funded Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, housed at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, provides tissue for the study of neurological disorders such as Huntington’s disease, autism, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
A technician at the hospital discovered that the freezer had failed on May 31 when he opened it to retrieve a sample. Of the 150 thawed brains in the freezer, 54 were designated for autism research, while 93 were designated for research on psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s.
The freezer was one of 24 used by the brain bank, which stores about 3,000 brains in total. Research on autism will likely be most affected since there was a greater concentration of autism brains in the freezer — about a third of the total collection.
“This is a significant loss, there’s no doubt about it,” said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the brain bank. “It will delay progress in the field of research.”
The hospital is investigating whether the brains might still hold value for genetic research, and initial indications are positive.
“It appears that the DNA may be in a reasonable form for genetic studies,” Benes said.
CONVERGENCE OF EVENTS
The freezer failure came despite two alarm systems that are designed to alert security and staff should there be a malfunction. Both alarm systems are connected to separate circuits, and the room containing the freezer is monitored around the clock, the hospital said.
Twice a day temperature gauges on each freezer are inspected. Each freezer was reading normally, at minus 79 degrees centigrade. It was only when the door was opened that it became evident that the freezer had malfunctioned.
Freezer failures are not uncommon in research, but for a freezer and two alarm systems to fail simultaneously is perplexing.
The hospital is conducting a full investigation of equipment, security systems and other potential causes of the malfunction, said Adriana Bobinchock, a spokeswoman for McLean. She said Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc makes the freezers, but said it is too early to make any decisions about whether equipment will be changed.
“The glass half full side of this disaster at McLean is that it will act as a wake-up call to other brain banks to recheck their security systems,” said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who specializes in investigating the history and pathophysiology of degenerative disorders.
The brain bank has been storing brains for more than three decades. In general, brains are received by the center within 24 hours of the owner’s death. They are typically bisected. One half is placed in formalin, a tissue fixative, and the other half is dissected into regions of the brain and frozen.
Postmortem brain research has played a key role in the development of a genetic test for Huntington’s disease as well as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, according to the center’s website.
Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy group that runs the Autism Tissue Program, a clinical program that makes brain tissue available to scientists and stores the brains at the McLean brain bank, said it is in the process of conducting its own, independent investigation.