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Personal-genetics firm denies pursuit of designer babies in patent filing



The consumer genetics firm 23andMe was last week awarded a US patent for a method to predict a baby’s traits on the basis of its parents’ DNA, the company announced.

23andMe, which is based in Mountain View, California, says that the patent relates to its Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, which “offers an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you” and has been available to customers since 2009.

Yet the patent (PDF here), which was filed more than 5 years ago, includes language that mentions other applications of the method, including for the screening of sperm and ova to be used for in vitro fertilization. The patent mentions the potential to screen would-be babies for traits such as eye colour, disease risk, height and gender.

The company says that it included such language when it filed the patent because it saw the potential for the tool to be used in fertility clinics. “But much has evolved in that time, including 23andMe’s strategic focus. 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,” it says.

23andMe’s first patent, relating to a genetic variant associated with Parkinson’s disease, angered some customers, who objected to the company’s potentially making a profit from their genetic information (see ‘Personal-genetic company patent raises hackles’).

In commentary piece published today, Sigrid Sterckx, a bioethicist at Ghent University in Belgium, raises concerns about the 23andMe patent, and the processes that led to its approval: “[A]t no stage during the examination of the patent application did the patent office examiner question whether techniques for facilitating the ‘design’ of future human babies were appropriate subject matter for a patent,” she and her team write.

Updated 3/10/13 to include Sterckx’s commentary on the patent, which was under press embargo.


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