The California-based firm, 23andMe, says its Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, the service to which the patent relates, offers an 'engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you'. However, the language used in the patent application when it was submitted five years ago suggests that its use in fertility clinics when choosing sperm and egg donors was also considered at the time.
Entitled 'Gamete Donor Selection Based on Genetic Calculations', the patent reveals how people could use the method described to choose a gamete donor with genes that are deemed likely to produce certain characteristics in a baby.
Using genetic information from a gamete donor and recipient, along with the option of including the recipient's phenotype preferences, the model is able to identify a 'preferred donor' from a range of potential donors by the calculating the likelihood of traits occurring in a resulting child. The ability to specify a preference for both eye colour and height, as well as inherited diseases and also 'lifespan', through a 'user-selectable interface' is outlined in the patent.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, described the project as 'ethically and socially treacherous'. She said: 'It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent [...] it amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies'.
23andMe was quick to clarify its intentions, saying that it no longer planned to use the technology for anything more than as a way for its customers to see what kind of traits their child could inherit using their own genetic information.
In a blog post, the company said: '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 in the patent'.
'But much has evolved in that time...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 Family Traits Inheritance Calculator service currently offered by the company has been available since 2009. The company offers DNA analysis of samples collected by post for $99.
In 2012 the company was granted its first patent, relating to potential applications of a gene it found to be associated with Parkinson's disease. At the time, some customers reacted angrily at the prospect of the company profiting from their genetic information (reported in BioNews 659).