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Biomedicine in museums

Is scientific playfulness getting lost in translation?

By December 10, 2006No Comments

Will one of the unintended efffects of ‘translational medicine’ be that the traditional playfulness that characterizes the life science culture will become stymied by politically correct medical science committee people?

The recent case of censoring gene names is an early warning sign. The Human Genome Organisation Gene Nomenclature Committee is about to rename a number of genes which some physicians believe have offensive or embarrassing names. The reason behind this is that geneticists have traditionelly used their creative fantasy to come up with weird gene names like lunatic fringe, sonic hedgehog, cookie monster, etc. But now, when these names are increasingly being transferred to the human analogues of the genes, some medical doctors find this practice problematic: “It struck me that if I were talking to a patient and telling them the problem is that they have a mutation in their lunatic fringe, that would be an inappropriate conversation we were having,” said Mark Ludman, a medical geneticist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, to news(at)nature (on-line version 6 November 2006). Biologists are pissed: “Darn prissy physicians. They’ve got no sense of humor”, wrote PZ Myers on Pharyngula under the heading “Hands off those genes” — and was followed by a host of (mostly supportive) comments.

It’s a minor issue, of course. After all, Drosophila and zebra fish geneticists do not own these names, and there are more important things in this world to worry about than whether it is right or wrong to call a human mutation lunatic fringe. But this little intermezzo is nevertheless symptomatic of one of the problems of ‘translational medicine’, viz., that it is one thing to translate data and methods — but another thing to translate cultures. Will the geek culture of life science get lost in the translation to clinical medicine? And what effects will this have for medical science?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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