A Company Is Charging $750,000 for Eggs and Sperm From “Genetically Desirable” People


A new global fertility agency claims to provide its clients with eggs and sperm “from the highest quality donors in the world” for a fee of $750,000, raising questions about the ethics surrounding the intersection of reproduction and genetics.

 Billionaire Matchmaker

Roughly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin shared his theory of natural selection with the world. It is through this evolutionary process that all species — humans included — chose their mates. Early on in our history, it was a process of elimination more than a choice. The individuals best adapted to their environments would survive long enough to reproduce, sending their desirable genes forward to the next generation.

Natural selection is still at work in our species today, but so is a far less natural means of genetic manipulation.

“All people are not created equal”

In December 2016, global fertility agency Purenetics opened for business. The company claims to provide its clients with eggs and sperm “from the highest quality donors in the world.” Basically, it is a company that is meant to allow the rich to “buy” a baby with whatever genetics they desire.

Those “genetically desirable” donors submit their information online, sharing everything from their blood type and eye color to their IQ and ethnicity. Purenetics clients must show proof of funds of at least $750,000 and give a deposit of $10,000 to even access the donor database. If they decide to make a purchase, $500,000 goes to the donor and $250,000 to Purenetics.

Up until just last year, payment for an egg donation was limited to $10,000, and the average sperm donation still only earns the donor roughly $35 to $50. Clearly, Purenetics is positioning itself as a high-end fertility service—one that works with people that the company designates as being “genetically elite.”

 The company’s founder claims that the work is not unique: “Our focus is not that much different than that of an upscale matchmaking service,” he claimed in a press release announcing the company’s launch. “It is a niche market that has not been addressed in an institutionalized way.”

Despite the founder’s attempts to normalize the process, the company’s uber-sexy donor video and tagline of “All people are not created equal” might leave anyone without a modeling contract feel a bit like a member of the huddled masses. Add to that social media accounts that feature more buxom blondes than a Playboy pool party, the founder’s decision to remain anonymous, and the fact that donors must pay $5.99 to even submit their applications, and the whole thing feels even less legit.

But setting aside any clues that it might be little more than a money-making scheme, is Purenetics necessarily doing anything wrong by selecting “desirable genes”?

Two Medical Milestones, One Big Controversy

While our ancient ancestors had pretty simple criteria for their reproductive mates — stay alive long enough to reproduce — advances in healthcare, agriculture, and education have made it so surviving well past the reproductive years has become the norm in much of the developed world. Research confirms what most of us probably already knew: people with the traits that are now most desirable — good looking, wealthy, steady income — are in a position to be more selective when choosing their mates. Proponents of Purenetics might say it is simply using the technology of the internet to speed up the selection process.

But like many issues surrounding the intersection of genetics and reproduction, this one carries with it numerous ethical concerns.

In 1978, the world’s first “test tube baby” was born via in vitro fertilization. Researchers had successfully removed an egg from a woman’s ovary, paired it in a laboratory dish with her husband’s sperm, and then implanted the subsequent embryo into her uterus. The woman had been unable to conceive through traditional methods despite years of trying, but nine months after the procedure, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Another medical breakthrough took place 25 years later when the first human genome was mapped. As the Human Genome Project put it, “Having the essentially complete sequence of the human genome is similar to having all the pages of a manual needed to make the human body.” Today, anyone with a couple hundred dollars to spare can request an abbreviated copy of their own genetic owner’s manual through sites like 23 and Me or Pathway Genomics. This relatively easy access to human DNA has led to new medical research and treatments, and now, we’re not only able to study and learn from human DNA, we can also alter it.

 IVF has been called everything from a “moral abomination” to a “miracle,” and public opinion is split on gene editing as well, with some deriding the technology as “playing God,” while others list its thousands of benefits. Combine the two controversial medical milestones, and the phrase “designer baby” moves from the realm of science fiction tropes to that of real-world possibilities. That shift excites some and terrifies others.

The Perfect Baby

Only recently have laws against human embryo editing begun to loosen, but we have good reason to be cautious about the technology — past efforts to manipulate the genetic makeup of a population haven’t gone so well. The early-twentieth century eugenics movement in the United States considered poor, uneducated, promiscuous, and non-white citizens “genetic undesireables.” By the time the movement ended, more than 64,000 people had been legally subjected to forced sterilization. It wasn’t until after the Nazis enacted their own eugenics programs that the practice lost favor in the U.S.

Thankfully, the situation today is a little different. Instead of forcing those with undesirable traits to forgo reproduction altogether, in some instances, doctors could simply remove the negative traits from their DNA. Some are already envisioning a not-so-distant future in which this modification will be permitted when doing so could prevent a baby from inheriting a diseaseEditing genes to ensure a baby is healthy doesn’t seem so controversial. But attractive or tall or athletic? Where do we draw the line?

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Right now, the best way to ensure that you have the “perfect” baby is to choose a mate that meets all of your qualifications and hope your offspring takes after them. After all, being a billionaire isn’t an inheritable genetic trait, but if the money can be used to buy the reproductive material of someone whose desirable traits areinheritable, are we really doing anything differently than our ancestors, combining the genetics of society’s “fittest” — both financially and genetically — to create the next generation?

There is no right answer, but the question of just how far we’re willing to go to create the ideal offspring is one we’ll need to address very soon. If someone is willing to pay $750,000 in the hopes that “elite” DNA from a donor will carry on to the next generation, would they be willing to skirt the law and modify that DNA to ensure that it does?


Embryo editing sparks epic debate

In wake of paper describing genetic modification of human embryos, scientists disagree about ethics.

Human embryos are at the centre of a debate over the ethics of gene editing.

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported that they have used powerful gene-editing techniques to modify human embryos. Their paper1, published in the Beijing-based journal Protein & Cell on 18 April, came as no surprise to the scientific community, but it has ignited a wide-ranging debate about what types of gene-editing research are ethical. The publication also raises questions about the appropriate way to publish such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, describe how they used a system of molecules called CRISPR/Cas9, known for its ease of use, to cut DNA in human embryos and then attempted to repair it by introducing new DNA.

In a deliberate attempt to head off ethical concerns, the team used non-viable embryos obtained from fertility clinics, in which eggs had been fertilized by two sperm and so could not result in a live birth.

Gene-editing techniques such as those that rely on CRISPR/Cas9 had previously been used to modify DNA in adult human cells and animal embryos. Earlier this year, rumours were circulating that the methods were being applied in human embryos too, but the Huang paper is the first published report of this.

The team used CRISPR/Cas9 to modify a gene that can cause a potentially fatal blood disorder called β-thalassaemia when it is mutated. Some researchers have suggested that such a procedure, if done in a viable embryo, could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: in response to the rumours that the work was being carried out, researchers warned in Nature2 and Science3 in March that because the genetic changes to embryos — a procedure known as germline modification — are heritable, they could have an unpredictable effect on future generations.

Researchers have also expressed concerns that any gene-editing research in human embryos could be a slippery slope towards unsafe, unethical or non-medical uses of the technique.

Serious obstacles

Huang’s team says that its results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in a clinical setting. The team injected 86 embryos with CRISPR/Cas9, along with other molecules designed to add in new DNA. The researchers then waited 48 hours, by which time the embryos would have grown to about eight cells each. Of the 71 embryos that survived, 54 were genetically tested. This revealed that just 28 were successfully spliced, and that only 4 of those contained the genetic material designed to repair the cuts. “That’s why we stopped,” says Huang. “We still think it’s too immature.”

His team also found a surprising number of ‘off-target’ mutations assumed to be introduced by the CRISPR/Cas9 complex acting on other parts of the genome. The effect is one of the main safety concerns surrounding germline editing because these unintended mutations could be harmful.

The rates of such mutations were much higher than those observed in gene-editing studies of mouse embryos or human adult cells. And Huang notes that his team probably detected just a subset of the unintended mutations because their study looked at only a portion of the genome known as the exome. “If we did the whole genome sequence, we would get many more,” he says.

Huang wonders whether there might be something intrinsically different that makes the human embryo more susceptible to extra mutations than animal embryos are. Another possibility — suggested by some critics of the work, he says — is that CRISPR/Cas9 worked differently in the embryos that his team used because they were the product of two sperm fertilizing an egg.

For some, these technical challenges support arguments for a moratorium on all research on human germline modification. “I think the paper itself actually provides all of the data that we kind of pointed to,” says Edward Lanphier, president of Sangamo BioSciences in Richmond, California, and a member of the group that wrote the Nature article2 calling for a moratorium.

“Some questions about early human development can only be addressed by studying human embryos.”

But George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, disagrees that the technology is so immature. He says that the researchers did not use the most up-to-date CRISPR/Cas9 methods and that many of the researchers’ problems could have been avoided or lessened if they had.

Although researchers agree that a moratorium on clinical applications is needed while the ethical and safety concerns of human-embryo editing are worked out, many see no problem with the type of research that Huang’s team did, in part because the embryos could not have led to a live birth. “It’s no worse than what happens in IVF all the time, which is that non-viable embryos are discarded,” says John Harris, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester, UK. “I don’t see any justification for a moratorium on research,” he adds. Church, meanwhile, notes that many of the earliest experiments with CRISPR/Cas9 were developed in human induced pluripotent stem cells, adult cells that have been reprogrammed to have the ability to turn into any cell type, including sperm and eggs. He questions whether Huang’s experiments are any more intrinsically problematic.

Modifying human embryos is legal in China and in many US states. Asked whether Huang’s study would have been funded under its rules, the US National Institutes of Health says that it “would likely conclude it could not fund such research”, and is watching the technology to see whether its rules need to be modified.

Because the embryos Huang’s team used were initially created for in vitro fertilization, not for research, the work would already have overcome many of the ethical hurdles it would face in other countries too, adds Tetsuya Ishii, who studies bioethics and policy at the University of Hokkaido in Sapporo, Japan.

Next steps

Applying gene editing to human embryos could answer plenty of basic scientific questions that have nothing to do with clinical applications, says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School, who supports editing of human embryos in vitro for research purposes.

For instance, altering developmental genes with CRISPR/Cas9 could help to reveal their functions. “Some questions about early human development can only be addressed by studying human embryos,” he says.

Gene editing could also be used to engineer specific disease-related mutations in an embryo, which could then be used to produce embryonic stem cells that could act as models for testing drugs and other interventions for disease, says Daley.

Huang now plans to work out how to decrease the number of off-target mutations using adult human cells or animal models.

Still, researchers expect to see more gene-editing studies in human embryos. “The ubiquitous access to and simplicity of creating CRISPRs,” says Lanphier, whose company applies gene-editing techniques to adult human cells, “creates opportunities for scientists in any part of the world to do any kind of experiments they want.” He expects that more scientists will now start work on improving on the results of the Huang paper. A Chinese source familiar with developments in the field said that at least four groups in China are pursuing gene editing in human embryos.

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