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Genomics firm 23andMe patents ‘designer baby' system, promises not to use it

  • Designer baby system 23andme.jpg

    The homepage for 23andMe, a company that offers to test your DNA to scan for heritable diseases. (23andMe)

  • Designer baby system 23andme 1.jpg

    An illustration from 23andMe's patent application for a "designer baby" system. (23andMe)

A personal genetics firm was recently granted a patent on a system that lets you predict the traits of a baby -- but the company promises not to use.

The Mountain View, Calif., company 23andMe just announced the patent for a system that would let parents to be chose traits they’d like to pass on or suppress in their children, from hair and eye color to susceptibility to diseases.

"Taken out of 'patentese,' 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," explained Sigrid Sterckx, a bioethicist at Ghent University in Belgium, in an essay published Thursday on Nature.

'We’ve never pursued the idea, and have no plans to do so.'

- Catherine Afarian, a 23andMe spokeswoman

"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," she wrote.

An image of the system associated with the patent shows a simple, pull-down menu to design your offspring: “I prefer a child with a low risk of colorectal cancer,” for example, or “I prefer a child with a high probability of blue eyes.”

But rest assured, the company told Wired it promises not to use the technology.

“When we originally introduced the tool and filed the patent there was some thinking the feature could have applications for fertility clinics,” said Catherine Afarian, a 23andMe spokeswoman. “But we’ve never pursued the idea, and have no plans to do so.”

Filed in December 2008, the patent was meant to cover the technology that supports a service the company currently offers, called Family Traits Inheritance Calculator. That service allows parents to scan their own personal genome and highlight the risk of passing certain diseases or susceptibility to them along to their offspring.

But the language of the patent extends beyond the Calculator, the company said. It offered details on the system in the blog post to be very clear about the technology and the company’s intentions.

A design-a-baby service isn’t in the works, but the services the company does offer are still of use to parents.

“Individuals use our service to get personalized information about their health and ancestry. This information empowers them to be more involved in managing their own health. It also offers them more insight into themselves, their traits and their family’s ancestry,” the company wrote.

Still, Sterckx was concerned that such a broad, potentially disturbing patent was approved.

"it is clear that selecting children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial," she wrote.

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