There has been a great deal of coverage this week of the new patent issued to genetic testing company 23andMe. U.S. Pat No. 8,543,339 is entitled “Gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations” and is directed to methods for pred...
There has been a great deal of coverage this week of the new patent issued to genetic testing company 23andMe. U.S. Pat No. 8,543,339 is entitled “Gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations” and is directed to methods for predicting traits for a child based on the DNA of candidate parents, and selecting a preferred donor based at least in part on the prediction.
Some of the coverage (including an editorial in Genetics in Medicine) has suggested that the methods are “hugely ethically controversial” and “‘GATTICA’-like,” and could lead to a “design-your-own-baby DNA test” and “designer babies.” Another popular genetic genealogy blogger, Roberta Estes, also addressed the patent on her blog earlier this week (“23andMe Patents Technology for Designer Babies”).
23andMe preemptively addressed the patent in their blog the Spittoon (“A 23andMe Patent”), and stated that “[t]he company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do [they] have any plans to do so.”
Too Much Hype?
The negative hype surrounding the patent, however, is based entirely on the misguided theory of genetic exceptionalism (the belief that genetic information is special and must therefore be treated differently from other types of medical information), and is unwarranted.
Here is a brief summary of my hypothesis, which I’ll get into in more detail below:
People have been screening possible gamete donors for decades based on things like religion, ethnicity, education, height, weight, eye color, hair color, age, and personal/family medical history, among other things (notably, several of these things are proxies for genotype, and some even work better than genotyping);
The difference between using the traditional traits/characteristics listed above for donor screening and the methods described in the 23andMe patent is that the patent involves the use of DNA to screen donors: accordingly, the outrage about this patent is based on genetic exceptionalism; and
Genetic exceptionalism lends itself very easily to government regulation, and is therefore potentially unfavorable for anyone opposed to genetic paternalism (including, presumably, genetic genealogists).
#1 – Selecting A Donor Without DNA
Although some may disagree with points #2 and 3 above, point #1 is indisputable. People have been screening potential donors for at least 50-60 years based on one or more of the factors listed above. Things such as personal and family health history have a very strong genetic component, and in almost every way are better predictors of health in offspring. For better and for worse, DNA has not turned out to be the strong predictor scientists thought it would be.
And even before gamete donation, there was the simple selection of mate based on appearances and behavior, which can be very closely tied to genotype.
Regardless, there is no doubt that donors have been screened for decades. However, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that donors should not be screened, or that there should be regulation of donor selection to prevent screening based on certain traits. Indeed, none of the coverage has suggested that any screening be stopped, other than DNA-based screening. At best, a few of the better articles have mentioned in passing that non-DNA factors are routinely used for donor selection.
#2 – The Myth of Genetic Exceptionalism
The 23andMe patent describes methods of using genotype (DNA) to predict the possible traits of a child and thus allows the selection of a particular donor based on the “best odds.” How is that process different from selecting a donor with the highest level of education and hoping that it corresponds to intelligence in the child? Or selecting a tall donor with dark hair in the hopes that the child will be tall with dark hair? Or selecting a thin donor in hopes that the child will be thin?
The difference is likely only that many people believe that DNA is different or special, that sele