23andme denies that it is marketing tool for "designer babies"

Michael Cook
12 Oct 2013
Reproduced with Permission

A controversy is raging over a patent awarded to the American company 23andMe for predictive genetics software. By using its Family Traits Inheritor Calculator, clients will be able to estimate the probability of having a child with certain genetic traits.

Some bioethicists were highly critical. Writing in the journal Genetics in Medicine, Sigrid Sterckx, of Ghent University in Belgium, and colleagues, suggested that the test could be used to create "designer babies".

"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, the selection being based on a computerized comparison of the genotypic data of the egg provider with that of the sperm provider."

Only couples are mentioned in the 23andMe blurbs nowadays, but its patent application envisaged applications for IVF clinics. A man could sift through several potential egg donors and choose the one which would produce the desired traits - or a woman with several sperm donors.

But 23andMe is vigorously denying that that the Family Traits Inheritor Calculator is a tool for creating designer babies. It is merely "an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you," it responded on its blog. The company had no intention of selling eugenic tools.

Most observers were not convinced. "It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent," said Marcy Darnovsky, of the Center for Genetics and Society. "It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies. 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."

Dr Sterckx commented on the Harvard blog Bill of Health: "we should see our mates as partners rather than as mere sperm and egg providers. The technique patented by 23andme facilitates an instrumental attitude towards both one's mate and one's children".

The controversy is unlikely to do 23andMe any harm. On the contrary, the publicity is bound to draw new customers, which is badly needs. Its business plan is based on crunching the data obtained by signing up at least 1 million people for its genetic testing kits.

23andme is a canny operator. Late last year it slashed the price of its test from US$999 to $99, a move which may have doubled its database to about half a million. It has hired a new CEO, Andy Page, whose previous job was marketing luxury goods online. It has also teamed up with the online education company Udacity to over an online course which will help people "to read and understand genetic information available from personal genetics services such as 23andMe".