Lost in Translation: The Novice’s Guide to BioPharma Idioms


Xconomy Seattle — 

Many fields of endeavor have their own special words, abbreviations, and coded language. People working in each of these disciplines learn over time how to use certain phrases that describe items or situations in the best possible light. In real estate listings, for example, a house will never be designated as “small.” Instead, it might be referred to as “adorable” or “cozy.” “Conveniently located” would be a nicer way of saying that a house is next to a busy highway. The phrase “a great opportunity” is usually translated as “the house needs a lot of work.

You may be at a loss to figure out the truth behind the meaning of these phrases if you don’t happen to work in that particular area. Biopharmaceuticals, like real estate, has its own set of catch phrases that likely need translation for the layperson. With that in mind, I’d like to share some examples to help those of you who are new to this field to understand what is truly meant or is being hidden. As the author James Baldwin once said, “The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an immediate knowledge of its ugly side.

With that in mind, here are some translations of phrases you often hear in the biopharmaceutical business:

All forward-looking statements are based on the companies’ current assumptions and expectations and involve risks, uncertainties and other important factors” simply means “please don’t sue us when our drug fails in the clinic.

We don’t permit our reps to sell drugs via off-label promotion” is the denial frequently heard in response to a federal indictment. This phrase used to mean “dang, we got nailed!” After a more detailed legal analysis, however, it has been re-translated as “off-label drug promotion is free speech and shall not be infringed.

Our drugs are made in the most modern, up-to-date facilities” is often uttered in response to accusations of serious manufacturing problems. It can often be translated as “if this was public housing, people would accuse us of being slumlords.”

If a drug sales rep says “I’m not wearing a wire” at a company-training seminar, this actually means that he or she is recording the session for their whistleblower lawsuit.

The phrase “we were forced to raise drug prices due to increased costs” is a classic example of obfuscation. It really means “we hope nobody noticed that our price increase was seven times the rate of inflation.

These marketing problems were all in the past” can be correctly translated as “it’ll be much harder to catch us in the future.

If a company spokesperson says “the FDA is just playing politics” or “they didn’t really understand our data” following the unanimous rejection of a drug application, he or she generally means “we were praying for a miracle approval.” However, these phrases are sometimes used to indicate “we know the drug doesn’t work, but we needed time to inflate the stock price so we could exercise our options.”

If a press release claims, “this deal will be worth $650M dollars if all milestones are met,” don’t be awestruck by the numbers. It usually means “we’ll be lucky to meet one milestone and earn a fifth of that.” Others use the phrase as a substitute for “welcome to Fantasy Island!

Small gifts to doctors will not influence their prescribing practices” actually means “do you think we’d be wasting money on this approach if it didn’t work?”

When a startup tells you “we believe we have freedom to operate” this usually means “running numerous detailed patent searches is well beyond our limited budget.” However, some use the phrase as another way of saying “my Uncle Joe, the carpenter, doesn’t see any problems with our going forward.”

In response to fraud allegations, the phrase “we neither admit nor deny these charges” means “we’re guilty as heck but are never going to say so publicly.

If a marketing flack says “we never provided inducements to doctors to prescribe our drugs” in response to a federal indictment, this often means “we offered very generous kickbacks.

When a politician states “vaccines are dangerous and may cause mental retardation” what they really mean is “I’m not a scientist and I have no idea what I am talking about.”

The phrase “we don’t think ghostwriting is problematic” really means “most of our publications were written by someone not listed on the paper.

When a senior executive says “our stock buyback program enhances the value of our company for our shareholders” is really means “we have no innovative ideas on which we can spend the money.”

Finally, “any suggestion that we misled the public about the risks and benefits of our drug is a gross misinterpretation of the facts,” is just a nicer way of saying “we made a boatload of money while turning a blind eye to the data.

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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One response to “Lost in Translation: The Novice’s Guide to BioPharma Idioms”

  1. Rita Adams says:

    There are a lot of phrases that has different meanings. That is why if you are not familiar with this you might just think that it is nothing serious or bluntly understanding what is stated, but you never know what is the other meaning behind it. That is why it is important that you should be a keen observant and should be reading behind the lines. -http://www.conselltranslations.com/