In “The Biotech Devil’s Dictionary: Your Guide to the inanities of industry jargon,” Damian Garde of STAT News lists 16 bullshit terms that are common in biotech news and coverage. Why do they exist? To make the ordinary sound special.
Here are part of his excellent list, with my own translations:
2.0 (adj.): A largely meaningless modifier one can append to anything meant to sound at once improved but also predictably improvable. Seen as a clever way to compare the frightening world of biology to the more linear space of software engineering.
“Biotech 1.0 is the ‘Hopes And Dreams Model,’ but biotech 2.0 is the ‘Nirvana Model.’” — Credit Suisse analyst Ravi Mehrotra
clinically meaningful (adj.): A handily hard-to-define term one can use when a drug doesn’t show a statistically significant benefit in a clinical trial but needs to be marketed anyhow.
“Forty-four-month median OS in patients treated with Afinitor compared to 37.7 months for the placebo/crossover arm; not statistically significant but clinically meaningful.” — an ad for a Novartis cancer drug, spotted by Dr. Vinay Prasad
electroceutical (n.): A word used to describe non-drug technologies that can treat disease, presumably invented because “medical device,” which means exactly the same thing, is not as elegant.
“What if electroceuticals could be as effective as drugs? What if electroceuticals could be one-hundredth as effective as drugs? It would mean that electroceuticals are going to change the world.” — Marom Bikson, City College of New York professor
Holy Grail (n.): Used in biotech to describe things that would be superlatively lucrative if they actually worked, like oral insulin, disease-modifying Alzheimer’s therapies, and pain pills that can’t be abused.
“Ultra-deep sequencing to detect circulating tumor DNA has the potential to be the Holy Grail for early cancer detection in asymptomatic individuals.” — the press materials from a diagnostics company that one-upped everyone by actually naming itself “Grail”
Translation: ineffective in most cases
probability of success (n.): A term sell-side analysts use to guess at how likely clinical trials are to meet their goals; their estimates generally range between bullish and can’t-miss, odds-on, buy-this-stock-right-now-or-you-deserve-to-be-jailed positive.
“Investor consensus remains at a coin flip, but we maintain our conviction of 60 percent-plus probability of success.” — Cowen analyst Ritu Baral on Sage Therapeutics’ treatment for a rare seizure disorder, a drug that later proved virtually indecipherable from placebo
Translation: unfounded optimism
transformational (adj.) and unmet need (n.): A pair of phrases one can weave into really any sentence about a new drug, as literally no one in the history of biopharma has touted its milquetoast pipeline of treatments for diseases that are perfectly well served already.
“Addressing the significant unmet need in fibrotic diseases is a key part of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s strategy to build a sustainable and diversified portfolio of transformational medicines.” — Francis Cuss, chief scientific officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb
Why Biotech bullshit exists
The typical outcome of any biotech activity is failure. Most scientists’ experiments fail to deliver a successful therapy or drug. There are any number of opportunities to fail along the way, from laboratory synthesis to animal testing to clinical trials. Where there is success, it may be marginal. And yet an enormous amount of time, energy, and PR goes toward efforts to create optimism regarding this failure-prone activity. (All the failure is necessary to find the successes — it’s a feature, not a bug — but clearly describing the failures as failures is still virtually impossible for anyone in the public-facing side of the industry.)
This is why Garde was able to point out that biotech folks say “meaningful” when they mean meaningless, Holy Grail when they mean mirage, and transformational when they mean nothing at all.
Failure is extremely useful. Scientists are accustomed to it, if not comfortable with it. But when they labor in the public sphere, their handlers can’t admit the truth about failure.
What words do you use to describe your company’s failures, and your own? Perhaps we all need our own Devil’s Dictionaries.