'Designer baby' services move closer to commercial reality

9 October 2013

Consumer genetics giant 23andMe has been granted a US patent for a technique to predict a baby’s traits based on the DNA of its putative parents.

The company’s Family Traits Inheritance Calculator has been available to customers for some years already and is said to offer ‘an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you’, but the patent issue has provoked criticism because it also includes applications such as the screening of egg and sperm cells for in vitro fertilization (IVF), and for disease risk as well as physical traits, leading to accusations of plans to create ‘designer babies’ on demand. 23andMe says that it has no plans for commercial pursuit of this aspect of the patent.
Meanwhile, however, another US-based company is already set to offer genetic screening of sperm samples for IVF and comparison with female clients’ own DNA to seek the healthiest combinations. Start-up GenePeeks says their aim is to avoid the birth of children with increased risks of rare inherited disorders; co-founder Anne Morriss has a child with the metabolic disorder MCADD (medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency) conceived by sperm donation
Pre-conception screening services for the presence of recessive disease variants in couples are already commercially available, to determine whether their offspring would be at risk. However, the IVF / sperm donation variation differs somewhat in that it creates and examines thousands of potential couple pairings and eliminates the higher risk ones. Moreover, GenePeeks reportedly has plans not only to employ targeted exome sequencing but also to include complex disease risk variants in screens. Experts have expressed concern over how well clients would really understand the risks to potential children once these lower-risk and much less predictive genetic variants enter the picture.
Comment: The tag ‘designer babies’ has long been something of a misnomer, since the complexity of interactions between genetic and environmental factors that combine to influence most traits is such that the ability to predict outcomes is extremely limited, so that parents could not simply order selection of (say) a blonde blue-eyed athletic super-genius embryo, or similar. However, we are clearly now edging closer towards this designer baby concept.
How far is it reasonable to expand the use of genomic screening technologies beyond avoiding the birth of children with severe diseases (widely accepted in many societies, but still considered unethical by some) into attempts to select for or against variants of much more questionable reliability and medical impact? Issues of both ethics and consumer protection warrant attention.

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