A freezer malfunction at a Harvard-affiliated hospital has damaged a third of the world's largest donated brain tissue for autism research.
A spokeswoman for Autism Speaks said it was too early to assess the impact of the loss, discovered last month at the McLean hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, but one scientist predicted it could set research on the disorder back by as much as a decade.
In all, 93 donated brains were damaged at Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (HBTRC), 54 of them dedicated to autism research.
A spokeswoman for the center at McLean hospital, Adriana Bobinchock, said two investigations were under way to determine how the freezer failure happened. A third investigation was being carried out by Autism Speaks.
D Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, told the Boston Globe that the damaged brains were a "priceless collection."
While foul play was not being ruled out, Bobinchock said that it was unlikely because the collection was located in a locked room within a secure building accessible by one of two keys held by security staff and brain bank staff.
There is also 24-hour surveillance. Bobinchok said the inquiry would concentrate on what caused the failure of the freezer, as well as two alarm systems that should have been triggered by the rise in temperature. The freezer is normally checked twice a day by staff who study a digital readout on the outside of the freezer.
But when a staff member opened the freezer, they noticed that the temperature inside did not match the display, which normally read minus 79 centigrade. Two alarms, connected to separate circuits, had also failed to go off.
The malfunction was discovered on May 31 after three days of rising temperatures – too late to prevent thawing of the tissue. Tests are currently under way to determine if the DNA is intact and can be used for genetic research, but Bobinchock said it is "unclear whether the samples will be compatible with the full-range of the needs of neuroscientists".
Fifty-two of the brains related to autism research had been bisected, with one hemisphere placed in formalin and the other half put in the freezer. The formalin fixed hemispheres for these 52 cases remain available for research or have been assigned to specific research efforts such as the Brain Atlas project.