CGS Calls on 23andMe to Disavow “Designer Babies”: Controversial New Patent Raises Critical Questions

Press Statement

The direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe has just been awarded a patent for “gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations.” The Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest organization, is calling 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.

“It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent,” said Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, Executive Director 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.”

The “gamete donor selection” patent, which was granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on September 24, covers computer and genetic algorithms and methods that would purportedly identify prospective egg or sperm providers who would increase the likelihood of producing a baby with pre-selected traits. 23andMe now claims to have changed its mind since filing the application in 2009, and has said it has “no plans” to implement it.

"23andMe can demonstrate that it's serious about acting responsibly on this matter by announcing that it will use the patent it now holds to prevent any other parties from adopting this technology," said Darnovsky.

According to the patent application, would-be parents could specify “phenotypes of interest in the hypothetical offspring,” and receive a report on the probabilities that using gametes from various providers would produce those traits. The traits mentioned in the patent include both risks of inherited diseases and traits such as height, weight, “muscle performance,” eye color, gender and “personality characteristics.”

“Predicting the risk of most common diseases for an existing person has fallen far short of gene testing hype,” Darnovsky said. “Probabilistic estimates of a hypothetical child’s risks are even more scientifically dubious. Increasingly, scientists acknowledge that for many disease and non-disease traits, we don’t now know and may never find the so-called missing heritability.”

“But a project like this would also be ethically and socially treacherous,” Darnovsky continued. “Would the company ensure that providers of sperm or eggs have given their consent to genetic testing? Would these people be informed of the findings? And what about 23andMe customers whose DNA was used to come up with the algorithms? They signed contracts that allowed the company to use their genetic data for research, but not to find `designer donors.’”

The larger societal concerns are extremely troubling, Darnovsky said. “This project could foster the false belief that biology trumps social, economic and environmental conditions in influencing our health and well-being. And it could encourage the dangerous idea that science should be used to breed `better’ people, breathing new life into the specter of eugenics that has long hung over the field of genetics.”

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The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) is a non-profit public affairs and policy advocacy organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive biotechnologies.

Marcy Darnovsky
1-510-625-0819 x305