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Strange but true: Naming drugs is a real art

Question: In the world of commercial drugs, what's in a name? More than you might think.

Answer: At least three names go with a consumer drug — its chemical compound, its generic label and its trade or proprietary name, says Susan Ipaktchian in "The Name Game" in Stanford Medicine magazine.

For a new drug, the U.S. company submits three possible generic names to the U.S. Adopted Names Council (USAN), which selects one and clears it with the World Health Organization to avoid global duplication. USAN has a list of approved "stems," such as statin for "cholesterol-lowering" in a name like atorvastatin. Other guides call for easy pronunciation, at most four syllables, and uniqueness to avoid name confusion.

Trade names such as Sneeze-B-Gone and Regain (hair growth) are disallowed since they promise efficacy. Celebrex (conveying celebration), Wellbutrin (wellness) and Claritin (clarity) typify "experiential" names; Lipitor is functional, combining "lipid" with "tor" from atorvastatin.

Linguistic tricks are also popular, such as plosives (P, T or D) to convey power, fricatives (X, F, S or Z) to imply speed. Trade names like Xanax and Zyrtec seem like they came from another planet — which works, says Ipaktchian. A meaningless word that captures the public's attention (think Viagra) can be worth hundreds of millions in sales. Then if it translates well worldwide, avoiding cultural clash, that's "the Holy Grail of drug marketing."

Question:There was something almost comforting in the old idea that after all the outracing galaxies emanating from the Big Bang 15 billion years ago finally "run out of gas," they'd come gravitationally falling back in together toward a Big Crunch — maybe to be followed by Big Bang II or III. . . . The universe like a big accordion. But you can scratch that idea, say cosmologists today. Instead, where are all the galaxies racing toward, including our own Milky Way?

Answer: We're riding a pointless explosion to nowhere, never to run out of gas, never to return, as writer John Updike put it. Rather the galaxies seem to be expanding away from each other at an accelerating rate, though no one can say "where" they're headed since space itself is expanding, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Scott Hughes.

From the point of view of us in the Milky Way, all the other galaxies are racing away from us while we sit still; to alien astronomers in another galaxy, all the other galaxies are racing away from them — a little like spots on a balloon growing more distant from each other as the balloon is inflated.

Are there exceptions to this? Yes, says Hughes, if two galaxies are close enough, their gravitational interaction can overwhelm space expansion, such as our Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy racing toward a spectacular collision with each other, probably in a few billion years.

But whether that beats racing to nowhere is hard to say.

Question:Apple aficionados, would you like a Fuji, a Granny Smith, a Jonagold, a Susan Brown . . . ? A Susan Brown? How many varieties are there today for the picking?

Answer: At the USDA-Agricultural Research Service's Plant Genetics Resources Unit in Geneva, N.Y., are DNA samples of over 3,000 apple varieties from all over the world, kept in pairs just like the original ark of diversity, reports Philip Forsline of Cornell University. Storage of germplasm is an important new bulwark against pests and pathogens that might threaten the global food supply.

At Cornell, says horticultural scientist Susan Brown, we have bred varieties such as Empire, Jonagold, Cortland and Macoun and are developing new hybrids. Some apples now have new flavors (hints of anise or banana), textures, shapes, appearance. We tried to create some that kids will want to eat as much as snack foods.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com