Science

A history of science and biotech, told through words added to the dictionary

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How old were you when CRISPR got added to the dictionary? And what were your grandparents doing when DNA made its first appearance?

Now you can find out. Merriam-Webster has been promoting a search tool that lets you look up the words that got added to dictionary in the year you were born, or any other year dating all the way back to 1500. (Incidentally, the word illness got added that year.)

We at STAT decided to scour Merriam-Webster’s trove for some of the most important words that have shaped science in the past century. Taken a whole, the list is a revealing lens through which to understand the history of science and biotech.

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Here are the words that stood out to us, going back more than a century:

2014

Sorry — initial coin offerings are a biotech thing now. ICOs look an awful lot like IPOs, except people buy “tokens” of a cryptocurrency held on a blockchain rather than stocks. (The SEC, naturally, has something to say about that.) In February, one announced it would seek $19 million from such an offering to develop an incubator for babies born via C-section.

2011

Blockchain: The technology that underlies transactions of cryptocurrencies and has since been adopted by biotech entrepreneurs hoping it can help people understands their genomes and uncover treatments for diseases.

2009

Anti-vaxxer: A decade after the British physician Andrew Wakefield’s now-retracted study positing a link between vaccines and autism, this became an easy shorthand for people who oppose policies encouraging or mandating vaccines or espouse false claims about vaccine safety.

2008

Exome: a portmanteau of exon (a segment of DNA that codes for a protein) and genome (the entirety of an organism’s DNA), it was coined by DNA sequencing pioneer J. Craig Venter and colleagues to mean all the protein-coding regions of the genome — which is much easier to sequence than the whole genome.

2005

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, short for PrEP: The HIV prevention treatment was added to the dictionary a year after Gilead Sciences synthesized the pill. It has changed the approach to curbing rates of HIV in high-risk groups.

2003

Electronic cigarette: Although e-cigarettes made their way into Merriam-Webster this year, another 13 years passed before the FDA issued sweeping regulations for the increasingly popular devices.

2002

CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats: When this bacterial immune system was discovered in the early 1990s, it was named “short regularly spaced repeats,” or SRSRs, a moniker that likely would not have propelled the genome-editing system to the global fame that it’s achieved.

2001

Tadalafil: This medicine is better known by its brand name, Cialis. The drug was approved by the FDA in 2003 to treat erectile dysfunction, becoming the third treatment for the condition on the U.S. market.

1998

RNAi, short for RNA interference: The term was added to the dictionary the same year that researchers identified the technique to silence disease-causing genes — research that would later win a Nobel Prize. In 2002, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals was founded in Cambridge, Mass., and this past summer won the first FDA approval for the first drug relying on the technique.

1992

Pharma: We’re scratching our heads — why did this abbreviation for pharmaceutical companies get added to the dictionary so late?

1991

SSRI, short for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: Four years earlier, Prozac was approved as the first in this class of antidepressants. These drugs would go on to transform the treatment of psychiatric conditions, but not without controversy around side effects and overprescribing.

1987

Beta-amyloid: That’s the protein that makes up the sticky brain plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease. The idea that you can treat the disease by clearing out those plaques remains the subject of fiery debate to this day.

1985

Statin: It’s the common suffix of a class of drugs that work by blocking the production of bad cholesterol, a group that includes the blockbuster atorvastatin, sold as Lipitor. Now generic, statins changed the standard of care for heart disease on the way to becoming some of the most lucrative products in pharmaceutical history.

1982

AIDS: That year, scientists found themselves mystified by a terrifying disease that was beginning to spread among gay men, heroin users, and hemophilia patients. The next year, the HIV virus was identified as the culprit.

1975

Tumor necrosis factor: Perhaps the most valuable protein in the human body, tumor necrosis factor plays a role in the inflammatory process. Drugs like Humira and Enbrel work by targeting the protein and are used to treat diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, generating hundreds of billions of dollars around the world.

1970

The world’s first baby conceived after in vitro fertilization was only born in 1978 — but this word’s relatively early arrival might be explained by the years of failures that preceded her birth. One Australian team, for example, published its attempt in 1973 in the Lancet. These days, the procedure is so common that egg freezing — with an eye toward future IVF procedures — is sometimes offered to women in their 20s.

1968

Data mining: The biotech industry hadn’t even been born yet, but someone already figured out a way to spin failed clinical trials.

1967

Biotech: Short for biotechnology, it’s the discipline that came about once scientists figured out how to clone DNA, giving rise to a scientific revolution and seeding a multibillion-dollar industry in pharmaceuticals and agriculture.

1964

Antirejection: It took 10 years after the first successful organ transplant for this word to be used in this context — that is, to the medications that people take after such surgeries. Experiments to determine which drugs should be used continued into the early 1960s.

1955

Animal model: The term was added at a time when lab animals began to play an increasingly critical role in biomedical research. Today, lab rats, mice, and zebrafish continue to remind us that what works in mice doesn’t always work in humans.

Artificial intelligence: More than 60 years after it was added to the dictionary, the concept has taken hold in medicine. Researchers and clinicians are hoping to use artificial intelligence to help diagnose disease, guide treatment decisions, and forecast epidemics.

1942

Epigenetics: The word made it into the dictionary the same year a British geneticist coined it, to define “the causal interactions between genes and their products, which bring the phenotype into being.” Today, there’s booming research interest into the on and off switches in our DNA.

1938

Deoxyribonucleic acid: It would take another 15 years before James Watson and Francis Crick identified DNA’s molecular structure and set into motion the genetics era. Incidentally, an archaic spelling of our genetic code, desoxyribonucleic acid, made it into the dictionary in 1931. But the abbreviation DNA didn’t make it into the dictionary until 1944.

1929

Postdoctoral: At a time when the modern university was taking shape, there emerged a new breed of researchers, fresh out of their Ph.D.s and looking for a job. In the past century, they’ve become the engines powering academic labs. They’re doing some cool work.

1918

Antiflu: This addition came the same year that a flu pandemic killed millions of people around the globe.

1909

Gene: The term made into the dictionary at a time of growing interest in Gregor Mendel’s experiments on pea plants conducted in the 1860s. But it would take decades more for the study of genetics to take off in a real way.

Let us know in the comments if we left out the birthdays of any of your favorite words in science.

Sharon Begley, Kate Sheridan, Megan Thielking, Andrew Joseph, Adam Feuerstein, and Damian Garde contributed reporting.

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