karyotypeA group of bioethicists has gone on record for speaking out against a controversial patent that could lead to the development of “designer babies” in ways that could damage the public trust considered central to continued success of research of human genetics. Their commentary, published in the October 2013 online edition of the scientific journal, Genetics in Medicine, addresses the patent issued by the US Patent Office on September 24, 2013, to California-based 23andMe, which offers direct-to-consumer genetic testing services.

Since publication, the commentary has generated its own commentary, including feedback from 23andMe. In the company’s online blog, it says it originally filed a patent application in 2009 when it was planning to market its genetic selection computer applications to fertility clinics. Now that “much has evolved,” though, they no longer have interest in selling to clinics, choosing instead to promote their products directly to individuals wanting to have children.

The company stands by its selling point that using its system to predict genetic characteristics in one’s children is the “fun way” to create a family. Medical traits such as lactose intolerance can be avoided and pretty things, such as eye color, can be more accurately selected.

Jayne Lucke considers the controversy a non-issue at this time. Lucke, of the Centre for Clinical Research at the University of Queensland in Australia, says most countries would not allow this form of genetic selection and will continue the practice of permitting the selection of ova, sperm, and embryo only for reasons of disease prevention.

Dr. Lucke further indicates the technology to select for such detail is “a fair way away” and feels that parents will never be able to design the baby of their dreams with 100 percent accuracy. She expects no general acceptance of embryonic engineering for reasons other than medical but suggests the concept of doing so runs the risk of becoming “murky” in practice.

Ethicist Leslie Cannold says patent law was never intended to manage issues as complex as genetic engineering. Dr. Cannold feels it’s more a matter of society to understand collectively what’s going on in genetic engineering labs and to use the political process to keep regulations in check.

Loane Skene, agrees. Skene, a medical law expert with Australia’s University of Melbourne, feels it’s not the role of the patent office to assess public views on issues of ethics. Patent offices have neither the expertise or the resources to accomplish such a task, according to Skene.

Source: Sterckx, Sigrid, et al. “I Prefer a Child WIth . . . “: Designer Babies, Another Controversial Patent in the Arena of Direct-to-Consumer Genomics. Genetics in Medicine. 3 Oct 2013. Web. 5 Oct 2013.