Israeli IVF clinics imported embryos with serious genetic disease, probe reveals

Medical staff reportedly implanted embryos afflicted with hemophilia in several hopeful mothers, in latest revelation in series of Israeli IVF scandals

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative. In vitro fertilization (IVF) of an egg cell. (iStock by Getty Images/ man_at_mouse)
Illustrative. In vitro fertilization (IVF) of an egg cell. (iStock by Getty Images/ man_at_mouse)

A joint months-long undercover investigation by the Health Ministry and the Israel Police’s fraud division in Tel Aviv revealed that staff at two in vitro fertilization clinics imported fertilized human eggs from Georgia affected with the serious genetic disease hemophilia B.

The staff allegedly knew that the embryos were affected yet implanted them in several Israeli women undergoing IVF treatment.

According to Hebrew media, one of the individuals arrested for the alleged fraud and related crimes is an embryologist and a department head at one of a chain of private hospitals. The other, who goes by the title professor, is the owner of a private fertility clinic in the greater Tel Aviv area.

The individuals involved and the hospital and clinic have not been publicly named due to a court order, the Health Ministry told The Times of Israel.

According to information released Monday by the Health Ministry, the case began with an internal investigation within the ministry when it received reports that the eggs of a donor carrying the genetic mutation for hemophilia B were fertilized at the BIRTH clinic in Georgia and imported to Israel.

Hemophilia B, also called factor IX (FIX) deficiency or Christmas disease, is a genetic disorder caused by missing or defective factor IX, a clotting protein. The disease is generally passed genetically from parent to child, although one-third of cases happen spontaneously.

Hemophilia B causes people to bleed longer than usual. Dangerous and even life-threatening bleeds can occur internally, in joints and muscles, or externally, from minor cuts, dental procedures, trauma, or surgery.

Genetically engineered factor replacement therapy for hemophilia patients. (Andreas Bemeleit via Wikimedia Commons)

After conducting its investigation, the Health Ministry brought its findings to the police. The police’s Tel Aviv fraud unit followed up with an undercover investigation supported by the police’s intelligence division, the Health Ministry, and the State Attorney’s office.

The investigation pointed to the two unnamed individuals who, on several occasions in recent months, imported fertilized eggs for implantation in Israeli women. It is suspected that those involved both in Georgia and Israel knew that the embryos were affected.

The Health Ministry ordered an immediate halt to the importation of fertilized eggs from the clinic in Georgia, but not the closure of the hospital department or private clinic in Israel.

The ministry also ordered the heads of all IVF clinics in Israel to work to identify Israeli women for whom the embryos may have been imported and engage them in making informed decisions about how they want to proceed.

According to a report in the Hebrew media, four women have thus far filed official complaints with the police, including one who gave birth to a child with hemophilia and another who suffered a stillbirth when she was 20 weeks pregnant.

The suspects were to undergo further questioning Monday and be brought before the magistrate’s court in Tel Aviv for a request by prosecutors to keep them in custody.

In an interview with Channel 12 news on Monday, lawyers for the accused maintained that their clients followed all genetic and other screening protocols for in-vitro fertilized embryos required by the Health Ministry.

Assuta Medical Center in Rishon Lezion. (Screen capture: Google Maps)

The investigation and legal proceedings follow several recent scandals relating to Israelis seeking to start or grow their families by IVF, the most notorious involving the 2022 birth of a baby girl to parents with no genetic relationship to her.

That mix-up, at Rishon Lezion’s Assuta Medical Center, was discovered when the then-in-utero fetus was determined to have medical problems and consequently underwent a variety of tests. The results showed that neither the woman carrying the child nor her partner could be the biological parents.

The biological parents of the baby were identified last year after a series of genetic tests, the Rishon Lezion Family Court revealed in early March.

Unlike the current case of alleged fraud, the error was ascribed to staff overwork and failure to follow protocol.

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