Bioethicists have raised the red flag over an American patent for a method that could allow people to choose genetic traits like eye colour in children sired from donor eggs or sperm.
The patent for what is called a "gamete (egg or sperm) donor selection" method, was granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to the firm 23andMe on 24 September.
A description on the USPTO website said the "technique allows the potential gamete recipients to make more informed donor choices".
"What 23andMe is claiming is a method by which prospective donors of ova and/or sperm may be selected so as to increase the likelihood of producing a human baby with characteristics desired by the prospective parents," write medical ethicists from Belgium, the Netherlands and France in the journal Genetics in Medicine.
This would be based on a computerised comparison of the genomic data of the egg provider with that of the sperm provider.
Characteristics on the parents' "shopping list" could include height, eye colour, muscle development, personality traits, or risk of developing certain types of cancer and other diseases, say the commentators.
A figure attached to the patent application would allow prospective parents to indicate whether "I prefer a child with": "longest expected life span", "least expected life cost of health care", or "least expected cumulative duration of hospitalisation", they say.
There were also options for "0 per cent likely endurance athlete" and "100 per cent likely sprinter", though the company had stated it could not guarantee the outcome but merely boost the chances of a child having the desired traits.
The commentators describe the method as "hugely ethically controversial" -- particularly as it allows for the selection of characteristics that have nothing to do with the child's health.
"At no stage during the examination of the patent application did the patent office examiner question whether techniques for facilitating the 'design' of future human babies were appropriate subject matter for a patent," they write.
Crossing the line
Associate Professor Jayne Lucke from the Centre for Clinical Research at the University of Queensland says the patent granted to 23forMe appears to cross the line between the accepted practice of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to eliminate a specific disease risk and the controversial idea of selecting socially desirable traits.
"By framing the proposal around the method, the patent has been granted without appearing to address the moral and ethical implications, or the question about whether the procedure is appropriate," says Lucke.
She says the commentary in Genetics in Medicine raises a number of questions for public debate surrounding the use of genetic and reproductive technologies.
"The idea of a "baby farm" manufacturing babies on demand for customers with no emotional or biological connection to the gametes or the resulting child is clearly unacceptable. But where should we draw the line between methods for disease prevention and those seeking to enhance future children with the "right" characteristics, whatever they may be?" she asks.
Medical ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold says patent law was never intended to manage the moral complexities that arise from 23and Me's screen.
"It is up to society to get our collective heads around what is happening in the the lab, and to deploy the political process to regulate it accordingly, says Cannold, who holds an adjunct position at Monash University.
"While it is questionable whether science can deliver many of the genetic predispositions promised in the 23andMe patent, what is certain is that the science that forms the foundation of the application was never intended for such frivolous use."
23forMe says the patent, applied for more than five years ago, was for a tool dubbed Family Traits Inheritance Calculator that offered "an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you" -- from eye colour to whether the child will be able to perceive bitter taste or be lactose intolerant.
The language of the patent was much broader than the technology to support the calculator, the company says in a blog on its website.
"At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics, so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included," it says.
"The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so."
The USPTO says it does not comment on issued patents.