Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Designer Baby Patent Makes Scientists Uneasy

A private company, 23andMe, has patented a method of creating “designer” babies by allowing the selection of sperm and eggs that are most likely to produce traits chosen by the parents, such as eye colour or athleticism, and also allows screening out of sperm and eggs likely to lead to genetic disease.

23andMe will develop a genetic service to screen egg or sperm donors for desirable traits. Egg or sperm donors are already screened for transmittable infectious diseases and for a range of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis. Screening more widely for other genetic disorders can make sense, but there is a point where screening becomes futile because many diseases are more likely to be driven by environmental factors rather than by genetic influences.

As an IVF doctor I worry that some seem to forget that the true value in parenting lies not in designing the perfect child (they may disappoint greatly anyway) but to be there, always, for the needs of the child as it comes.

It is also unclear who will hold 23andMe accountable for the claims they make. It is a very profitable no-lose proposition for the company. When prospective parents in Australia base their donor choice on currently available information they are very likely to have a healthy donor-conceived child with many of the selected traits anyway, so for 23andMe to claim all these “matches” as their success is drawing a long bow. Furthermore, when things turn sour, the company can easily hide behind their disclaimer that they don’t guarantee a desired outcome, they merely increase the probability of such an outcome.

It is obvious that there is a clear need for regulatory oversight to check that the company delivers what it promises.

A/Prof Luk Rombauts is an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor at Monash University, Research Director at Monash IVF and Head of Reproductive Medicine at the Monash Medical Centre.

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Patents are intellectual property rights that reward inventors for inventing something new and useful. The inventors are granted a monopoly right for a limited period to gain a financial reward for their effort and creativity in inventing the product.

It is not the role of patent authorities to canvass community views on potential ethical issues of new inventions. They do not have the resources or expertise to do that.

But, even in jurisdictions where broad public interest factors may be considered in granting a patent, it is not ethically objectionable to allow couples to choose, or even to form, an embryo that does not have a genetic medical condition. That decision is better for the child to be born than taking the chance that the embryo may be affected. Indeed, such choices are allowed under the current law in Australia, as in other countries.

To suggest that couples will turn to IVF, with its burdens, uncertainty, costs and potential risks, simply to have a “designer baby” with blue eyes or sporting prowess seems highly unlikely.

Prof Loane Skene is a Professor of Law at Melbourne Law School, an Adjunct Professor in the Medical Faculty at the University of Melbourne, and former Deputy Chair of the Lockhart Committee on human cloning and embryo research.

The patent granted to 23andMe for “a method of gamete selection” is startling because it seems to explicitly cross the line between the accepted practice of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to eliminate a specific disease risk and a much more controversial idea – the selection of socially desirable traits to custom design a baby. By framing the proposal around the method, the patent has been granted without appearing to address the moral and ethical implications, or the question of public opinion about whether the procedure is appropriate.

The commentary from Sterckx and colleagues (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/gim.2013.164) raises a number of questions for public debate surrounding the use of genetic and reproductive technologies. The idea of a “baby farm” manufacturing babies on demand for customers with no emotional or biological connection to the gametes or the resulting child is clearly unacceptable. But where should we draw the line between methods for disease prevention and those seeking to enhance future children with the “right” characteristics, whatever they may be?”

A/Prof Jayne Lucke is a Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Clinical Research, The University of Queensland.

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Patent law was never intended to manage the moral complexities that arise from 23andMe’s screen and sort method of producing a child with non-disease attributes desired by the parent/s. It is up to society to get our collective heads around what is happening in the lab, and to deploy the political process to regulate it accordingly. Biotech companies could start the process of bringing the public into its confidence by ensuring customers whose genetic information is being used to develop its new technologies are both informed and consenting to the use of their genetic information for this purpose.

Neither the moral nor political idea of reproductive freedom was intended to accommodate parental preferences for pink or blue, or a child with a better long-term health profile or more sporting ability.

While it is questionable whether science can deliver many of the genetic predispositions promised in the 23andMe patent, what is certain is that the science that forms the foundation of the application was never intended for such frivolous use. Indeed, its deployment for such purposes risks undermining public support and funding for scientific endeavour intended to relieve the pain of unwanted infertility and familial transmission of debilitating disease.

Dr Leslie Cannold is an author, academic ethicist, columnist, activist, and Australian public intellectual.

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