Genetics Firm Promises Not to Use New 'Design-A-Baby' Patent

Thursday, 03 Oct 2013 10:30 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A personal genetics firm has been granted a patent on a design-a-baby system that would let parents predict the traits of their offspring.

But 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company that won the patent in September, promises not to use it, Wired reported.

That's little comfort to some bioethicists, the Los Angeles Times reported

In a commentary Thursday in the journal Genetics in Medicine,  a group of bioethicists in Europe describes the scenario covered by the patent as "hugely ethically controversial."

"Taken out of 'patentese,' what 23andMe is claiming is a method by which prospective donors of ova and/or sperm may be selected so as to increase the likelihood of producing a human baby with characteristics desired by the prospective parents," Sigrid Sterckx, a bioethicist at Ghent University in Belgium, wrote in the essay.

"What is claimed is not a cast-iron, fool-proof method guaranteeing that the eventual child will have all the phenotypic traits on the parents’ shopping list, an impossible task, but merely a method of improving the chances that the baby has the 'right' characteristics."

An image of the system associated with the patent shows a pull-down menu to design your offspring: “I prefer a child with a low risk of colorectal cancer,” for example, or “I prefer a child with a high probability of blue eyes."

The company told Wired it won't use the technology.

"When we originally introduced the tool and filed the patent there was some thinking the feature could have applications for fertility clinics,” said 23andMe spokeswoman Catherine Afarian.'

"But we’ve never pursued the idea, and have no plans to do so."

Filed in December 2008, the patent was meant to cover the technology that supports a service the company currently offers, called Family Traits Inheritance Calculator. That service allows parents to scan their own personal genome and highlight the risk of passing certain diseases or susceptibility to them along to their offspring.

But because the language of the patent extends beyond the Calculator, the company said it wanted to clarify its intentions.

Though a design-a-baby service isn’t in the works, the services the company does offer are still of use to parents, the company claims.

“Individuals use our service to get personalized information about their health and ancestry. This information empowers them to be more involved in managing their own health. It also offers them more insight into themselves, their traits and their family’s ancestry,” the company wrote.

Sterckx said the fact such a broad, potentially disturbing patent was approved is still a concern.

"It is clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial," she wrote.




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