by John Ross
￼ETHICISTS have raised the alarm after the US Patent Office granted rights to a computer-matching technology which could help people custom-design babies through IVF.
California-based genetic testing company 23andMe says the system is a “fun way” for couples to predict the likely characteristics of their children – both medical traits such as lactose tolerance and aesthetic aspects like eye colour.
But the technology could also allow prospective parents to screen sperm or egg donors for particular genetic dispositions. European bioethicists and lawyers say it could lead to people specifying height, eye colour, muscle development and personality traits in their “shopping list”.
Ethicists are worried about a technology with the potential to help would-be parents select ‘designer’ babies.
￼￼￼“Selecting children in (such) ways is hugely ethically controversial,” they write in the journal Genetics in Medicine (http://www.nature.com/gim/) .
They say the authorities should have considered the ethical implications before approving the patent. “Public trust is central to the continuing success of human genetics research.”
The company says it was considering “potential applications for fertility clinics” when it filled the patent application in 2009. “But much has evolved … (we) never pursued (those) concepts, nor do we have any plans to do so,” its blog says.
Jayne Lucke, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research, said the company would not be allowed to pursue this line even if it wanted to. Most countries only permit selection of embryos, ova or sperm for disease prevention purposes.
In any case, parents could never be assured of having certain types of babies. “It’s an illusion that you can design a baby that way – the technology is a fair way away,” Dr Lucke said.
University of Melbourne medical law expert Loane Skene said it was not the role of patent authorities to canvass community views on ethical issues. “They do not have the resources or expertise,” she said.
￼Ethicist and commentator Leslie Cannold agreed that patent law was not designed to manage moral complexities. “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,” she said.
But Dr Cannold said genetic science “was never intended for such frivolous use”.
Dr Lucke said that while there was general acceptance that people should not be able to engineer embryos for other than medical reasons, the principal could become “murky” in practice.
Examples included selecting skin tone to reduce the risk of melanoma, or pre-determining the baby’s sex to rule out gender-specific diseases such as haemophilia.