23andMe wants millions of customers in its database

At the same time, the consumer genomics company is being criticized for patenting what some are calling a "designer baby-making system."
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

When personal genomics company 23andMe hit the market in 2007 with a $999 genetic test, it seemed like an esoteric and largely disease-focused product. Now, as rivals hawk DNA tests as a tool for finding dates and detecting drug risks, 23andMe is trying to morph into a more mainstream lifestyle brand, Businessweek reports.

Last year, it dropped the price to $99, doubling its database to about 400,000 customer profiles. This summer, the company ran its first national ad campaign and launched a massive open online course.

More important, perhaps, 23andMe is about to announce a private-sector partnership that could be a model for bringing millions more consumers on board. “The most important thing right now is scale,” says [president Andy] Page.

June’s Supreme Court decision -- which ruled that human genes can’t be patented -- opened the door to a vast new array of players, but 23andMe has some advantages in the race to establish the leading direct-to-consumer genomics firm: it pioneered the use of crowdsourced genetic data for research on diseases such as Parkinson’s.

With a big enough database of genetic profiles, the company could look for disease patterns and areas of research that haven’t even been considered yet...

But 23andMe is making headlines for another reason. Last week, the company was awarded a U.S. patent for a method to predict a baby’s traits based on its parents’ DNA. Used in the online Inheritance Calculator, the tool “offers an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you.” Nature News explains:

Yet the patent [PDF here], which was filed more than 5 years ago, includes language that mentions other applications of the method, including for the screening of sperm and ova to be used in in vitro fertilization. The patent mentions the potential to screen would-be babies for traits such as eye color, disease risk, height, and gender.

This aroused a lot of criticism, which involved terms like “designer babies” and “close to eugenics. Yesterday, the company posted a denial -- saying that when the patent was filed, it saw the potential for the tool to be used in fertility clinics.

Right now, the calculator covers only six characteristics: eye color, hard or sticky earwax, whether muscle fibers will be geared towards sprinting or endurance events, bitter taste perception, lactose tolerance, and whether offspring will flush when they drink alcohol. It won’t be expanded to include other traits, Wired reports.

Read more: Businessweek, Nature News, New Scientist, Wired

Image: 23andMe

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards