US company secures patent for “designer babies”

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US genetic testing company 23andMe receives patent

The genetic testing company 23andMe received a patent in the United States for the selection of human sperm and egg cells. In the future, so-called designer babies are conceivable, because customers could theoretically choose sperm donors in a way that increases the chances of certain properties in the child. The company weighs down.

$ 99 for genetic analysis
The US biotechnology company 23andMe is offering its customers the analysis of their own genetic makeup for the price of USD 99. If two of their customers agree to disclose their DNA to each other, they can also use the "Family Traits Inheritance Calculator", a program that can be used to calculate which traits could be inherited by a child. The company is now innocently responding to inquiries about the patent they were granted in September this year. U.S. patent number 8543339 may allow future parents to preselect donor genes. For example, you can determine the likelihood of eye color, heart attack risk or lactose tolerance. However, according to press responses, the company has no plans related to fertility clinics.

What characteristics are desired in a child
Despite all the assertions, the patent arouses the suspicion of critics. Bioethicists Sigrid Sterckx from the University of Ghent and Heidi Howard from the French Université de Toulouse and colleagues in the journal "Genetics in Medicine" clearly commented that the company had patented a method by which ice donors and sperm donors could be selected what characteristics the future parents wanted in a child. The selection would be based on an algorithm that compares the genetic traits of the two biological parents. All possible genetic forms are conceivable, from cancer risk to height and personality types.

Company weighs down
Among other things, an illustration in the patent application in which a questionnaire appears in which it says: "I prefer a child with ..." is considered to be of concern, followed by possible answers ranging from a low risk of colorectal cancer to great chances of green eyes . After the technical publication and a report on the US website of the technology magazine “Wired”, the explosiveness of the topic was also recognized at 23andMe. In Germany, the specialist blog “Placeboalarm” at “” first reported about it. The genetic analysts stated in a blog entry that the four-year-old patent application was only supposed to protect the "Family Traits Inheritance Calculator". On the assumption that there was potential for use in fertility clinics, the application was also formulated. However, a lot has changed since then, including their own strategic direction. "The company has never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond the 'Family Traits Inheritance Calculator', and we have no plans to do that," says a statement.

Patent could have been refused on moral grounds
In any case, putting together a designer baby as desired is harder than expected. The bioethicists in “Genetics in Medicine” 23andMe also benefit from this. And even with the methods of genetic analysis of the biotechnology company, parents with a desire to have children would only have one opportunity to increase the chances of certain desired traits in the offspring. However, the authors are outraged that the US Patent Office apparently did not come up with the idea of ​​the moral objectionability of the patent. Even if there is no such explicit morality clause in US patent law, a patent had never been granted for moral reasons in a similar case. At that time, US scientists applied for a patent on chimeras from humans and animals to draw attention to the subject.

No patent possible in Europe
According to the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, the US biotechnology company had also applied for an internationally valid application for the patent. However, after researching the state of the art with which the EPO had been commissioned, the company had no longer applied for a European patent application. "An examination of the patent under European patent law has therefore not even taken place," said the spokesman. Christoph Then, managing director of the Munich Institute for Independent Impact Assessment in Biotechnology (Testbiotec eV) criticized the US company's project: "A person's genetic identity must not depend on fashion, market and opinion." And further: "Business ideas that the production of designer babies must not be promoted by patents. ”The patent should also be seen as a business idea and such a patent would be considered non-patentable at the European Patent Office. (ad)

Image: Sabrina Gonstalla /

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