Fears of “designer babies” and the long-running debate over couples using genetic information to preselect the traits of their offspring have been reignited by a recently awarded patent to direct-to-consumer genetic test seller 23andMe.
23andMe was issued U.S. Patent No. 8,543,339 on September 24 for “gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations.” The patent includes a diagram embodying a user interface for specifying traits and their probabilities, and displaying a “results page” with results on the probabilities that using gametes from various providers would produce those traits.
In the example furnished, a donor specified a preference for a low risk of colorectal cancer and congenital heart defects equally, and to a lesser degree a preference for green eyes.
“In some embodiments, the recipient is allowed to make a specification of one or more phenotypes of interest in the hypothetical offspring,” the application stated, adding as examples of phenotypes “height, eye color, gender, personality characteristics, and risk of developing certain types of cancer,” the patent application adds.
“It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies,” Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a longtime advocate of DNA privacy, said in a statement. “We believe the patent office made a serious mistake in allowing a patent that includes drop-down menus from which to choose a future child’s traits.”
“It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent,” Dr. Darnovsky said, calling such a service “ethically and socially treacherous.”
In a post on its blog, 23andMe says the patent “was meant to cover the technology that supports our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator,” an online tool launched in 2009 to offer “an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you.
“The Family Trait Inheritance Calculator has also been part of our service since 2009 and is used by our customers as a fun way to look at such things as what eye color their child might have or if their child will be able to perceive bitter taste or be lactose intolerant. The tool offers people an enjoyable way to dip their toes into genetics,” 23andMe stated.
The patent abstract defines gamete donor selection as “receiving a specification including a phenotype of interest and a plurality of genotypes of a respective plurality of donors, determining statistical information pertaining to the phenotype of interest based at least in part on different pairings of the genotype of the recipient, and the genotype of a donor in the plurality of donors, and identifying a preferred donor among the plurality of donors, based at least in part on the statistical information determined.”
23andMe said the expansive patent language reflects potential interest at the time of the patent filing in applying the technology to fertility clinics, “so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included in the patent.”
“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 company stated.
Dr. Darnovsky’s center has called for 23andMe to abstain from developing or offering any product or service based on the patent, and to use its patent to prevent others from offering their own designer-baby service.
23andMe’s is balking at walking away from the patent entirely, if its blog post is any indication. It notes that no template for offering genetic information directly to consumers existed when the company started seven years ago.
“In creating this new business and ensuring that we advance the technology and science behind direct-to-consumer personal genetics, we may occasionally patent that technology. Doing this helps us succeed as a business and continue with our mission to improve people’s lives. 23andMe believes that patents should not be used to prevent individuals from accessing their genetic data or its interpretation.”