STAT News reveals why biotech speaks fluent bullshit

Photo: Alex Hogan/STAT

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

Translation: better.

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

Translation: meaningless.

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

Translation: gadget

Holy Grail (n.): Used in biotech to describe things that would be superlatively lucrative if they actually worked, like oral insulindisease-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: mirage

precision (adj.): A term whose popularity as a descriptor of “medicine” has made it a catch-all for anything that could use a futuristic sprucing up, including agriculturedating, and shoplifting.

EPVantage has already trademarked ‘precision journalism,’ so don’t even think about it.” — Jacob Plieth, who is (hopefully) joking

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

Translation: [none]

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.


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  1. I worked in corporate biotech/pharma labs for years.
    EVERY single place I worked at was some kind of a farce, they were lying about their results and trying to flip an IPO.
    ….that also includes one of the major pharma companies too, actually the one that has the “clinical meaningful” BS line at the beginning of the article.

  2. “The typical outcome of any biotech activity is failure. Most scientists’ experiments fail to deliver a successful therapy or drug. ”

    It’s actually far worse than that, these so called scientists will take a compound they know is relatively safe and attach these so called beneficial properties to it, pushing and hyping all the way through the (pay to play) FDA clinical trials process. ONLY to find in the end that things just didn’t work out but hey that’s ok, the initial founders and VC investors all got to cash in after the IPO.

    A significant amount of what goes on in biotech is fraud and deception from the very beginning.
    I know, I’ve shamefully gone to work every day trying not to vomit over it.