Startup That Selects Embryos with Good Genes Says It's Not Doing Eugenics

A former Thiel fellow has launched a startup allowing parents to pick which embryos they want to incubate based on which has the best genes — and is insisting that the practice doesn't amount to eugenics.

Did we mention that "eugenics" literally means "good genes"?

Anyway, in a much-discussed interview with Wired, Noor Siddiqui, the 29-year-old founder of a reproductive startup called Orchid, talked a big talk about reducing suffering by screening embryos' genomes.

But when editor Jason Kehe asked her about the startup's origin story — her mother's diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa, which has made her legally blind — things started to get dicey.

Following the sci-fi-esque rationale that changing aspects of one's family line would essentially stop them from being born, Kehe argued that if Siddiqui's maternal grandparents had had access to a service like Orchid and chosen an embryo that would not go blind, neither the CEO nor her mother would ultimately have been born.

"I mean, I'm not deleting my mom," Siddiqui said, defensive.

"But, sort of retroactively, there is a world where you would, kind of, have deleted her," the interviewer responded.

The Stanford-educated startup founder continued to resist the conceit, insisting that she "would have a mom" but the woman in that theoretical timeline wouldn't have suffered. But Kehe kept up the pressure.

"You wouldn’t have had to see her suffer," he quipped, "because — not to be a broken record here — you wouldn’t exist."

Eventually, the reporter tactfully moved on from the testy exchange and onto the specifics of what Orchid does. But even those failed to offer a vision of a technology and service that are different from the "e" word that Siddiqui doesn't like having ascribed to her company.

Unlike its competitors, which only look at narrow arrays of genetic information linked to cancer and other diseases, Orchid sequences embryos' entire genomes — for an eye-watering $2,500 per embryo screened — and has already begun doing so for a secretive list of clientele. For all her own good intentions, however, Siddiqui seems to refuse the see that choosing embryos based on whether they have "good genes" could be a form of, well, eugenics.

"Every other time we examine something, we develop — we develop insulin, right? We’re like, 'That’s great!' It’s not like you’re playing god there. But you actually are, right?" she told Wired. "You’re creating something that didn’t exist before."

After touching upon the fraught subjects of population decline and Theranos — which Siddiqui, at the mention of the latter and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, remarked was "so mean" of her interviewer — the conversation eventually fizzled out.

Nevertheless, this complicated and clearly emotional exchange shows just how dissonant the worldviews of biotech founders can be — and how genetic selection as a consumer service has crept up on us without us even noticing.

More on genetics: Genes Aren't Actually the Blueprint of Life, Experts Say