Telegraph.co.uk Friday 04 October 2013
A “hugely ethically controversial” decision allowing an American company to patent technology which could allow the creation of “designer” babies has been criticised by ethicists.
An American company has been allowed to patent technology which could allow the creation of “designer” babies.
US authorities issued a patent for a “family traits inheritance calculator”, which can predict from a saliva sample aspects of a baby’s appearance and risk of certain diseases, to the genetics company 23andMe last week.
But scientists described the decision as a “serious mistake” because the technology could also be used by IVF patients to select sperm and eggs to produce certain characteristics, opening the doors to “designer babies”.
The company insists the technology will only be used to allow couples to “dip their toes into genetics” and find out what their babies could look like.
But one section of the patent application describes the potential for a “gamete donor selector” which could allow customers to select a “preferred donor” for an IVF child.
One figure included in the application depicts a menu headed “I prefer a child with”, along with choices including “longest expected lifespan”, and “least expected life cost of health care”.
Another diagram suggests that a choice between the “offspring’s possible traits”, including whether their muscular structure would be more similar to a sprinter or an endurance athlete, could also be possible.
Other characteristics could include traits like a child’s eye colour and whether they can taste bitter flavours, along with their risk of certain types of cancer or congenital heart defects.
Although the technique would not be able to guarantee any of the traits in a child, it could predict which from a set of donors would be most likely to give a prospective parent the characteristics they desire.
In a statement on its website, the company insisted that the patent application was filed five years ago and that such a system was no longer part of its plans.
“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,” it said.
“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.”
But ethicists nonetheless attacked the proposed use of the technology, as well as the decision by the US Patent and Trademark Office to approve it.
Writing in the Genetics in Medicine journal four scientists led by Dr Sigrid Sterckx of the Bioethics Institute in Ghent, Belgium, said: “It is clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial.”
Sperm and egg donors are routinely screened for serious genetic abnormalities which carry the risk of severe disabilities, but a system similar to a shopping list for non-disease related traits would have “much broader implications”, they said.
Marcy Darnovsky, of the Center for Genetics and Society, told the BBC that such a project would be “ethically and socially treacherous.”
“It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent,” she said. “It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies.”