Monday, May 24, 2010

Ball 4. What’s in a (drug) name? The tales anagrams tell—or not—about pharmaceutical marketing

Drug names often try to evoke cheerful whimsy—Pfizer’s painkillers Lyrica and Celebrex, for example, or Boniva, an osteoporosis agent from GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech, are onomatopoetic and light on the tongue. That’s no accident. With millions, and often billions of dollars at stake, a new medicine must grab the attention of both doctors and patients. Name recognition is critical.

But sometimes drug names have more to say than perhaps their marketers intended. Thanks to online anagram generators, these hidden messages are now easy to tease out. Here’s a list of some of the more amusing discoveries, courtesy of the Internet Anagram Server at (recommendation: be sure to try this at home, with the names of everyone from your mother in-law to your boss).

If anagrams contain an inner wisdom, some drug companies should have been more careful when coming up with their brands.

Consider Provenge, a new drug from Dendreon that fights prostate cancer by spurring the body’s immune system to attack tumors. Will men be scared off the medication by these three little words: “Never Go P”?

Similarly, Thrombate, an anticlotting drug from Talecris. Its letters combine to form “Heart Tomb” and “Bet To Harm”—neither of which screams “take me!”

Abbott Laboratories might have a PR problem with its AIDS drug, Heat-Stable Norvir. Hidden inside the three-word name: “A Observant Hitler.” (On the other hand, the drug seems likely to carry powerful, bipartisan political appeal. Conservatives looking for a strong showing in the midterm elections this November might be tempted by “A Thin, Stabler [Karl] Rove,” while liberals who detest the former Bush advisor might want to get their hands on “A Thin Rove Blaster.”)

Meanwhile, rabeximod, an experimental therapy under development by OxyPharma for patients with autoimmune disorders, might struggle against its competitors if it gets a nod from regulators. The anagram maker deems the product “A Bored Mix.”

Even when the hidden message isn’t negative, it’s often telling. AstraZeneca has high hopes for Brilinta, a blood thinner it plans to pit against blockbuster Plavix (Sanofi-Aventis/BristoMyers Squibb) in the multi-billion dollar market for such treatments. But it should have chosen a different name to make the best case for novelty. Brilinta’s most telling anagram: “Rat Blini”—a nifty combination of stomach turning foodstuff and unintended irony. After all, warfarin, the first blood thinner, was derived from rat poison.

Oleptro, Labopharm’s drug for major depression, doesn’t stretch far to hide the company’s hopes. It’s a “Rep Tool.” And, of course, let’s not leave out Viagra, whose generic name sildenafil, provides plenty to consider. Of the dozens to chose from, I’m partial to “Ids All Fine” and “A Filled Sin,” but you should find your own favorite.

Bausch & Lomb’s Besivance treats bacterial eye infections—a problem for people who wear contact lenses. But does this anagram hold a warning about possible side effects? “Even I Scab?” (You can also make “I Van Be Sec,” which sounds like something my Yiddish-speaking Bubbe might have said from behind the bathroom door.)

And, of course, when it comes to medicine, a little metaphysics never hurts. The folks at Johnson & Johnson could have been channeling J.K. Rowling when they named their new drug for rheumatoid arthritis Simponi. It contains—let’s hope not literally—“Imp Ions,” something Harry Potter would have had to master in his Dark Arts class. The FDA in January approved Ampyra, from Acorda Therapeutics, to improve mobility in patients with multiple sclerosis. But people who take it might want to get religion. One anagram from the drug’s name (punctuation added): “Ma, Pray!”

Mud Maracas (Adam Marcus) is managing editor of Anesthesiology News.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ball 3. Saharan Peril for Migrating Raptors

Update: The article in Tuesday's N.Y. Times ( on long-distance migrants missed this study and other work by Dr. Alerstam on tracking migrating birds. (The cover of my edition also had a teaser with a caption about a bar-tailed godwit under a photo of an arctic tern.)

For birds that migrate from Eurasia south through Africa, crossing the Sahara desert is a particularly treacherous leg of the trip. Although scientists have suspected that the 3.5 million square mile Sahara is a death trap for migrants, the magnitude of the mortality risk hasn’t been clear—until now.

Swedish researchers used satellite tracking technology to follow four raptor species whose migration path took them across the Sahara. They found that 31% of juvenile birds—but only about 2% of adults—died during the migration, accounting for much of the overall annual deaths among these species.

The new study is the first to show how satellite tracking can be used to provide a quantitative picture of bird mortality at specific times and places during the animals’ annual cycles, said Thomas Alerstam, an ecologist at Lund University. It also yielded surprising graphical evidence of the frequent stops and starts, retreats and other detours that delayed the birds’ arrival at their breeding grounds.

“These instances of difficulties were significantly associated with late arrival at breeding sites and poor breeding success, showing that a barrier to passage may not only cause important direct mortality but also have consequences that translate into fitness losses later in the annual cycle,” Alerstam said.

The combination of such a limited margin for safety during migration and the Sahara’s southward expansion—a process of “desertification” resulting from global climate change—may have major consequences for raptors and other species that make the trip from the Palaearctic ecozone across northern Africa, the researchers said.

Alerstam’s group reported its findings in Biology Letters (Dec. 2009).

One editor’s response: “We’re going to pass on this, as it doesn’t seem all that surprising that a big barren desert could be bad for birds. Thanks though.”

Ball 2. Electronic "Tongue" Has a Taste for Tea

This story struck me as a sure bet--science, economics, quirky niche behavior--which is why it's a good thing I don't wager on sports, I guess. Even the British press wouldn't bite on it (as far as I can tell; none of them ever replied to my queries, a lack of professional courtesy that's a real pet peeve of mine). I found it while digging through the abstracts of the upcoming 2010 World Congress on
Biosensors, in Glasgow, UK. This meeting is a great venue for fascinating but largely unproven research.

Attendees at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this June will be able to immerse themselves in sessions covering everything from how to open a tea house to the latest in trends and blends.

What they won’t see, however, is a new bit of electronics that potentially could revolutionize their $10 billion industry: an electronic "tongue" that, its inventors say, can quickly and cheaply identify levels of two key taste compounds in tea leaves. Such a test would give both buyers and tasters a rapid means of determining product quality, which for now remains more art than science.

The hand-held device, developed by researchers in Taiwan, assesses levels of molecules known to produce astringency—the tannins that cause the pucker-up quality in many forms of tea—and umami, a general savoriness.

Samples of infused tea are put into the detector, which uses ultraviolet light to excite the leaves and measures the energy they generate in response. Leaves with different quantities of tannins and amino acids linked to umami, particularly one called teanine, produce different amounts
of energy, giving them unique signatures that can be easily identified.

The technique works best with partially fermented teas, such as oolong, a staple of Chinese restaurants around the world. Green tea, too, may also be a candidate, according to the researchers.

Tzong-Jih "George" Cheng, an associate professor at National Taiwan University who helped create the detector, said the technology could appeal to both tea wholesalers, who lack a fast way of gauging quality in bulk, and consumers, who are at the mercy of vendors when it comes to looking for top-shelf product.

Indeed, the Taiwanese researchers tested samples of infused teas of varying prices. They found that cost and quality—at least, according to the electronic tongue's definition—did not reliably agree. "We see that the retail price is not correlated with taste quality in partially fermented teas," Cheng said. "Price cheating is the usual conditions for general consumers."

The cost of the device is roughly $50US, with each test running about
25 cents.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ball One

Hard to know where to start with these. I've been shopping something around for about a month now that seems destined to die aborning, but in the interest of optimism I'll save it for later. Meanwhile, here's something from the archives--April 2009--that never saw daylight:

Monsters vs Aliens meet Bacteria vs Fungi.

Researchers have found that adding certain bacteria to the skins of frogs can protect the animals against a deadly fungal infection that has been ravaging amphibian populations in the wild.

Biologists at James Madison University say the bacteria Janthinobacterium lividum produce a substance called violacein that neutralizes the fungus causing the lethal infections. The scientists say the findings support the strategy of “bioaugmentation”—using microbes to beef up an organism’s natural defenses—in both wild and captive amphibians.

The researchers published their study in the iSME Journal's online edition ....

No luck with the major science magazines or websites.
This blog is dedicated to all those freelance pitches whose short, uncelebrated lives ended in an editor's inbox without so much as a whimper. I offer them here not as an indictment of editors whose news sense is undoubtedly sharper than mine, but because I think they fall into the category of information that makes you raise, say, one eyebrow instead of both.

Then again, what makes it into print or the digital equivalent often has less to do with a standard of newsy-ness than what an editor ate for breakfast or how annoying her children were as she left for work. (Was that an indictment? Maybe just a little one.)

In addition to posting story ideas I've failed to place, I'll include other items I think are interesting but won't pitch from throughout the world of science.