Genetics Company Awarded Patent for System to Create Designer Babies

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Oct 8, 2013   |   4:44PM   |   Washington, DC

This week the genetics world exploded with discussion about a new patent just issued by the U.S. Patent Office to a California company, 23andMe. 23andMe is a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company that offers genetic information to anyone who sends in a saliva sample and a fee.

23andMe was awarded a patent on their inheritance calculator, a feature where prospective parents can figure out the likely traits their children will have. The controversy surrounds the patent’s extension into the fertility industry where this technology could be used to screen donor egg and sperm to create a child with desired physical attributes.

Nature reports some of the options listed in the patent:

Figure 4 of the patent application lists the following alternative choices: “I prefer a child with”: “longest expected life span”/“least expected life cost of health care”/“least expected cumulative duration of hospitalization.” Figure 6 visualizes a choice between the “offspring’s possible traits” of “0% likely endurance athlete” and “100% likely sprinter.”

23andMe quickly issued a statement that it has no plans to use their inheritance calculator in such a capacity:

At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included in the patent. But much has evolved in that time, including 23andMe’s strategic focus. The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so.

The negative press about this patent was pretty universal. Every news story I read there was a clear sense that if this technology is used to go beyond satisfying curious parents to choosing donor gametes in the attempt to produce a child with desired traits, it would be morally wrong.

And it is wrong. But let us not kid ourselves that this is something entirely new. It is the same thing society has allowed for decades, just more high-tech.

Prospective parents that use donor egg and sperm have always been “shopping” among possible donors for traits like height, intelligence, and eye-color. Why else would there be advertisements for young women who are “5-foot-10” with “high SAT scores” to “donate” their eggs?

We have also have already been choosing the genotype of a child based solely on their genetics with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). With PGD, a batch of embryos are created and then genetically screened to see which satisfy the criteria of the parents. These criteria include sex and genetic compatibility with an older sibling.

We also already have a handful of children who are engineered to have the genetic material of three people. The FDA is considering allowing fertility clinics to create more. The United Kingdom has already given the green light for clinical trials.

Once we decided we could choose which children we don’t want, then it is only a small step (if a step at all) to choosing which children we do want.

Even if 23andMe never uses its patent, someday someone else will offer a similar service. That is unless society can return to the idea that children are gifts, tall or short, light or dark, healthy or not, and not just accessories chosen according to parental desires.