23andMe's Genetic "Calculator" Patent Lands On A Sensitive Market

A 2008 patent application related to choosing the traits of unborn children got a fresh round of attention this week after it was awarded to the genetics company. Is it about "designer babies" or something else?

This week a patent by 23andMe, the company behind the $99 personal genome kit—you can mail your spit to them and receive a comprehensive overview of your lineage, traits, and potential health conditions—got a new round of attention for a patent it applied for back in December 2008. It deals with technology behind a kind of "Inheritance Calculator." The genetic analysis would present prospective parents considering donor eggs or sperm with an array of genetic traits they'd prefer to be matched with. Examples in the patent application included: low (or high) risk of colorectal or breast cancers and congenital heart defects; longest expected lifespan; least expected life cost of health care; least expected cumulative duration of hospitalization; eye color; and the ability to taste bitterness. Further factors 23andMe looks into include lactose intolerance and wet or dry earwax.

Click to enlarge: A screen shot of 23andMe's calculator, provided by the company.

23andMe was awarded the patent, and this week, the Internet had a field day with it. Various outlets ran with its language and new "designer babies" and "build-a-baby" metaphors. The idea of using genetics to try and control the way a child comes out inevitably inspires such fast-forward thinking. It's the challenge that's inherent in finding a market for 23andMe's testing kits.

The company released a statement adamantly claiming the patent has nothing to do with designing children.

The language of the patent, (#8543339), “Gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations,” deals specifically with the context of fertility treatment but is also quite broad, according to 23andMe spokesperson Catherine Afarian. The ambiguity leaves room for speculation about what the patent could be used for in the future—namely designing children—however “the company never pursued the idea and have no plans to do so,” says Afarian.

The company filed the patent to cover 23andMe’s Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, according to Afarian, an existing feature on the company’s website which allows parents to see what traits their kids might inherit. According to 23andMe’s official blog post, “The tool (Inheritance Calculator) offers people an enjoyable way to dip their toes into genetics …. We offer parents a chance to look at the traits and conditions they might pass onto their children, something that many couples attempt to do without using genetics.”

News of 23andMe’s patent arrives on a personal genetics scene that’s experiencing a bit of a moment. Angelina Jolie mainstreamed personal gene testing in May when she revealed, in a New York Times op ed, her decision to undergo a double mastectomy after testing positive for BRCA1, a faulty gene that drastically increased her risks of developing breast cancer.

In the aftermath of Jolie’s news, 23andMe experienced a massive spike in interest in their DNA home-kits that test for over 240 health conditions and traits. The company debuted its first television commercial in August using real people receiving real DNA results to normalize what many view as scary and unnecessary science. However, navigating the knee-jerk response to the “designer baby” patent, fair or not, is something the company will need to take into account moving forward as they attempt to convert the masses to the idea that genetic testing is for everyone. “Our focus remains the same,” says Afarian. “Helping individuals understand how their DNA can be informative in managing their health and the health of their families.”

Read more about 23andMe in the forthcoming November issue of Fast Company magazine, featuring CEO and cofounder Anne Wojcicki and our writer's own experience with the company's testing.

[Flickr user lunar caustic]

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