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Company's 'Designer Baby' Patent Divides Bioethicists

23andMe, the test-your-own-genes company, has come under fire on moral grounds today for patenting a DNA prediction service that critics say could lead to “designer babies.”

The company received a U.S. patent last week for software it offers clients to estimate the chances that a theoretical child might have key genetic traits.

Called the “Family Traits Inheritance Calculator,” it does not examine disease risks but predicts six variable benign traits, including “eye color” and “muscle performance,” based on how parental DNA would likely combine.

23andMe has offered the service for years—it applied for the patent in 2008—but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision has brought new attention to its potential. A bioethics commentary out today—written for the journal Genetics in Medicine by lead author Sigrid Sterckx of Ghent University in Belgium, and three others—suggests that U.S. authorities might have withheld the patent for moral reasons. “[S]electing children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial,” they write.

The Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, also took whack at 23andMe. In a statement, signed by its executive director Marcy Darnovsky, the center calls on the company to “abstain from developing or offering any product or service based on this patent, and to use its patent to prevent others from doing so.”

The center objects that the science is inadequate to deliver on the promise that genetic traits—or even disease risks—can be forecast for a hypothetical child. “A project like this would also be ethically and socially treacherous,” according to Darnovsky. For one thing, Darnovsky writes, it could “encourage the dangerous idea that science should be used to breed ‘better’ people.”

Two other bioethicists contacted by Science did not see a significant moral issue, however. Hank Greely, an expert on law and genetics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says his “first take” is that it’s “much ado over not very much.” He is “underwhelmed” by the criticism, although “real questions” could come up, Greely says, if someone were to use the 23andMe forecasting service to pick among candidate embryos for transfer into the womb for a pregnancy, or to terminate a pregnancy. That doesn’t appear to be happening, he notes.

Bioethicist Nita Farahany of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was equally unperturbed. She and her husband are clients of 23andMe, Farahany writes in an e-mail, so today’s contretemps prompted her to check out what the firm said a theoretical child by them might be like. (They currently have no children.) She found, for example, that the child would have an 80% chance of bitter taste perception, no chance of being lactose intolerant, 100% chance of having wet earwax, 56% chance for brown or black eyes, 50% likelihood of sprinter-capable muscles, and little or no alcohol flush reaction. The results have “good entertainment value,” Farahany says. She concedes that there are risks of making predictions like these, but adds: “I believe that people should have access to information about themselves, and I think it’s laudable that 23andMe has helped pave the way for people to better understand their genomes.”

Perhaps alerted to the coming criticism, Catherine Afarian, spokesperson for 23andMe, based in Mountain View, California, issued a statement on the patent yesterday. “When the patent was first filed nearly 5 years ago,” she said, “there was some thinking that this feature would have potential applications for fertility clinics, where the donor selection process was typically based on photos, family history, and some limited genetic testing of donors.” But she says the company “never pursued the idea and has no plans to do so.”