The Wall Street Journal published a provocative article the other day, entitled “Don’t Understand Moronic Bromides?” about the proliferation over the years of acronyms in science.(Note the old-fashioned usage of “bromide” derived from the early sleeping pills). And while it’s a cranky piece, it’s not wrong.
That’s going to get me some irritated glances from several areas, but complaints have been building. Clinical trials have been named with increasingly tortured acronyms for many years now, for example. There’s some point to that, actually, since some of these projects have several trials at different stages of development and aimed at different endpoints, and there needs to be some way to refer to them in a distinctive and recognizable way. Giving them all random six-digit number designations wouldn’t help much, but on the other hand, naming them all things like VIRTUOSITY and POWERFL isn’t very easy to take, either. I just made those two up; I hope that I didn’t appropriate anybody’s actual trial designation, but the problem is that I can’t be sure that I didn’t.
My own suggestion? We manage to tag the actual clinical candidate drugs with letter/number designations that are distinguishable, reasonably memorable, and not cringe-inducing. We sure as hell don’t give them cutesy or chest-thumping acronyms of their own – what a horror that would be. Imagine your clinical candidate being called something like the First Really Operational Selective Tyrosinase Inhibitor (FROSTI) or the Orally Available Transition-state Mimic Effective Adenosine Ligand (OATMEAL). That would get out of control real fast, and I’m starting to regret even giving anyone the idea. But no, clinical candidates are named things like “ZZY49” or something like that, and couldn’t we just name the trials for them “ZZY49 Trial A”, “ZZY49 Trial B” and stuff like that?
Nope, we apparently can’t. Because the companies want to see valiant, forceful, forward-looking acronyms in every press release and writeup instead of something boring. Congress does something very similar in its naming of bills, which is why everything is named The Great American Cornucopia of Incredibly Wonderful Stuff Act of 2019. And in both cases, I would submit that whatever positive effects may have once existed for such branding might have fractionally worn off a bit by now.
It’s not like we researchers are innocent, though. Oh, no. The NMR folks (you knew I was going there) have a long tradition of painful acronyms for their pulse sequences, redeemed only (and substantially, truth be told) by their weird and self-deprecating character. I admit that I love the fact that two of the old classic experiments go by the names INEPT and INADEQUATE, and that there’s another sequence called the HOHAHA. You can wait around until Betelgeuse explodes into a supernova and you still won’t see anyone naming a clinical trial anything like that. And on the biology side, you have the fruit-fly people (and you knew I was going there, too). It’s been a longstanding tradition there that genes and phenotypes are named with what can only be called delirious abandon. Just recently, a mutant appeared that occasionally has some sort of neurological lock-up so that they drop right out of the air. And in their restrained, tasteful way, the Drosophila community now refers to that one as “Julius Seizure“. (I have to admit, that one does deserve some rueful admiration). Similarly, years ago, a variety that turned out to go oddly berserk when exposed to ether vapors became the “Ether-a-Go-Go” mutant.
The problem has been that the molecular and cellular biologists build on these things. They’re acronym fiends, too (that site is actually a very short list), and the names they’re based on are often syncretic gravel heaps full of tacked-on historical accidents. A protein gets discovered and named something catchy, but turns out to be the least interesting and important member of its class, but then everything else gets named after it anyway, and so on, even to the point of naming things across species. One of the most important proteins in the cell, c-Myc, is more fully the “avian myelocytomatosis virus oncogene cellular homolog” protein, and you can see encoded in that the winding road that it took from a viral bird disease. In actual practice, everyone calls it “mick” or “see-mick”; if you refer to it by that longer name 98% of researchers will tilt their heads at you like a puzzled Corgi. With good reason.
Some of these names are just relentlessly functional. A classic example is the mitogen-activated protein kinase family, a hugely important set of enzymes known to fans as MAPK (“map-kay”). A MAPK itself can be phosphorylated, by (what else?) a mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MAPKK or MAP2K). Which enzyme can itself be phosphorylated by, you guessed it and there’s no way to avoid it landing on you, a mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase. That’s known as MAP3K, since I don’t think anyone was too keen on calling any of them MAPKKK, and to make matters worse there are several examples of each of these kinases, all of which have other names and acronyms. We’ll never straighten all of this out now.
You can see how the Drosophila names work their way into common usage – many interesting genes and pathways have been discovered in the fruit flies – they’re useful little beasts – and the names can stick. So we have protein families like Dsh, which is more, uh, formally named “Dishevelled” from the appearance of the flies that identified it. Those are involved in Wnt signaling, a hugely important process itself whose name comes partly from the Wingless fruit fly phenotype. Fruit flies with abnormal vision turned out to have defects in their R7 eye cells, and had that gene named “Sevenless“, naturally, the protein product likewise, which led to a key interacting protein being designated BOSS, for “Bride of Sevenless“. And as fate would have it, a downstream protein that turned out to be part of a whole important family of guanine nucleotide exchange factors got named as “Son of Sevenless“, and the SOS proteins are probably the most well-known of the bunch by now.
And our old friends, the ether-a-g0-go flies, turned out to have defects in a particular ion channel protein, which got ERG. Whose human homolog got named, naturally, hERG (pronounced as it’s spelled, “herrrgh”, as if you’re lifting something heavy that you’d rather not). Which ion channel turns out (among other things) to be a major cause of some classic small-molecule drugs giving cardiovascular trouble – hERG ligands can lead to arrhythmias that can be dangerous and even fatal, and we now try to avoid hitting the protein if at all possible. But it’s not so great to tell someone that their heart attack was brought on through their human-ether-a-go-go protein, is it?