Personal Genomics Firm 23andMe Patents Designer Baby System, Denies Plans to Use It
BY BRANDON KEIM10.02.1312:08 PM
As described in a patent recently granted by the United States Patent Office, consumer genomics company 23andMe [started by the soon to be ex-wife of one of the Google Guys] has developed a system for helping prospective parents choose the traits of their offspring, from disease risk to hair color. Put another way, it’s a designer baby-making system.
The company says it does not intend to use the technology this way. “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 — number 8543339, “Gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations” — sounds like something out of Gattaca, the 1997 movie that came to symbolize tensions between self-determination and biologically ordained fate.
The patent describes a technology that would take a customer’s preferences for a child’s traits, compute the likely genomic outcomes of combinations between a customer’s sperm or egg and other people’s sex cells, and describe which potential reproductive matches would most likely produce the desired baby.
Among the traits listed in the application as examples of possible choice are: height, weight, hair color, risks of colorectal cancer and congenital heart defects, expected life span, expected lifetime health care costs, and athleticism.
Lesbians and infertile couples leafing through the catalogs of sperm banks
could make a good market for this.
By necessity, they engage in Design-a-Baby, so it would be helpful for them to have some advice on the likelihood of getting their desired traits. It doesn't even have to be at the genotypic level, just at the phenotypic level: I want my child to have, say, red hair and be skinny and have an SAT over 1300. Here are three donors who each have two of the desired traits. But which ones are more of a sure thing?
Also, the Asian market would likely be much bigger than the Northern Atlantic market.