Brave New Words

That which we call a rose,” wrote Shakespeare, “by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s a nice sentiment, and is certainly fitting to the lips of the tragic heroine of Romeo and Juliet. But in science and medicine, what you call things—how you label things—is supposed to matter. Just this month, a seventeen-year-old girl made headlines when she went into the hospital for a heart-and-lung transplant, only to have the surgeons discover, after removing the girl’s failing organs, that the donor’s blood type was incompatible. Fortunately, such occurrences are rare, precisely because labels are taken so seriously among scientists and health professionals.

The importance of accurate communication over the entire course of bioscientific endeavors hits close to home for us at Molecular Interventions. In preparing to publish one of the Review Articles that appears in this issue, for example, it was necessary for our editorial team to refer to a variety of neurotransmitter systems, including the dopaminergic, the γ -aminobutyric acidergic, and the glutamatergic systems, as well as to those neuronal networks that respond to serotonin. The appropriate term for this latter system stumped us. Seroton-ergic? Seroton-in- ergic? No small matter! As editors, we didn’t want to slight the experts, and we knew that our editorial colleagues would be watching. All month long—and I do not exaggerate—a Web discussion among editors and writers working in our nation’s capital has been raging regarding the propriety of the word “impact” used as a verb.

We turned to PubMed, a number of reference books, and to the abstracts and symposium titles that we could find on the Internet. Apparently, the experts, ranging from scientists themselves to a number of scholarly editorial staffs, fall short of unanimity in the matter of naming serotonin-responsive neurons: “Serotonergic” occurs about four times as often as “serotoninergic” in PubMed. But we couldn’t let something as important as proper word usage be determined by majority rule. We considered the other neurotransmitter systems that appear in PubMed: Glycinergic (never glycergic), enkephalinergic (never enkephalergic), epinephrinergic (never epinephrergic). Consistency—not euphoniousness—must prevail. Serotoninergic will be de rigueur for us at MI.

You just can’t be too careful.

Recently, Bristol-Myers-Squibb sent out a letter to health care providers to notify them that verbal and written prescriptions for the company’s antidepressant medication, Serzone®, had been incorrectly filled due to the similarity of the drug’s name with AstraZeneca’s drug, Seroquel® (quetiapine; one of the new “atypical” antipsychotic agents discussed in this issue by Miyamoto et al., pages 27–39). You may have heard about similar problems with other drugs, leading some pharmaceutical scientists to forewarn their colleagues in industry about choosing tricky, sound-alike names for new products.

And in the coming years, with pharmacogenomics promising patient-individualized drug treatments, the issue of biomedical labeling is only going to get more complicated. In our interview this month with Palmer Taylor (pages 6–10), Dean of UCSD’s new School of Pharmacy, we learn that a new generation of pharmacy students is about to be trained in, of all things, genomics and bioinformatics. If Serzone® and Seroquel® present problems, can you imagine the challenges that future health care professionals are going to face? Do you realize how many alleles, subfamilies, and families of cytochrome P450s have already been identified? Will the pharmacist of tomorrow take the time to verify whether a drug regimen is relevant to one isoform (e.g., cytochrome P450, family 11, subfamily A, polypeptide 1) as opposed to another (e.g., cytochrome P450, family 21, subfamily A, polypeptide 2)? More likely, an entire set of isoforms will have to be distinguished from among many possible sets.

Forget about human cloning. Your average molecular biologist will do you no harm. Nomenclature is the biomedical threat of tomorrow. Just make sure you approach this brave new world with a trustworthy editor at your side.


| Table of Contents