Controversy is brewing after a genetics company received a patent that might allow prospective parents to calculate the traits of their future offspring.
23AndMe is a company that allows the average consumer to analyze their genetic code. The test provides genetic information on more than 240 disease and physical traits, which can be used for various reasons including determining personal risk of getting breast cancer or helping long-lost siblings find each other.
"We started the company really with the idea that we wanted to do something revolutionary, where consumers could come, learn tons of information about themselves and really start to revolutionize health care," 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki previously told
The U.S. company recently received a patent for their Family Traits Inheritor Calculator, which allows couples to send in a saliva sample to see what kinds of genetic traits and diseases could be passed to their children.
However, the application for the patent stated that the company was also seeking to use this technology in fertility clinics. This led critics to think that couples could potentially create "designer babies," not only picking children based on disease avoidance but on their looks and other physical characteristics. Especially in the fertility clinic setting, the "GATTACA"-like scenario would allow couples to screen through numerous egg and sperm donors in order to pick a genetically superior child.
"It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent," Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, said in a statement.
"We believe the patent office made a serious mistake in allowing a patent that includes drop-down menus for which to choose a future child's traits," she added.
A commentary in Genetics and Medicine published on Oct. 3 also warned against parents using the technology to hand-pick genes for their children. The authors called the practice "ethically controversial."
"The use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to avoid implantation of embryos bearing serious genetic abnormalities is by now becoming commonplace, but a computerized process for selecting gamete donors to achieve a baby with a 'phenotype of interest' that the prospective parent 'desires in his/her hypothetical offspring,' as 23andMe puts it, seems to have much broader implications, for this process also entails the selection of traits that are not disease related," they wrote.
23andMe denied that it would be using the patent to create designer children.
"The patent process takes years, and businesses often file patents without knowing exactly how they might be used (or if they will be used at all) so that they can protect an innovation," the company explained on its website.
23andMe admitted at the time the patent was filed, the company had been considering practical applications in fertility clinics but has since decided against it.
"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," they stated.
Lori Andrews, a law and technology expert at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, explained to New Scientist that fertility clinics already screen donors for genetic-related medical risks. She also pointed out that the connections between DNA sequences and certain desired characteristics require many genes -- and scientists haven't found strong, definite evidence that they know which genes are the best for many traits, including intelligence and lifespan.
The Genetics and Medicine authors agreed that the science isn't exact quite yet.
"In 23andMe's favor, we must point out that 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," they wrote.