Saturday, December 24, 2011

Disease Olympics

This is my favorite new phrase, which I first heard in this article by Carl Bialik about the ethics of using sometimes tenuous statistics to rouse advocacy for diseases. It is used to refer to situations in which different maladies "compete" against one another for funding, attention, empathy, and the like.

As Otis Brawley points out, in many avenues of biomedical research, disease olympics relies upon a false dichotomy. For example, the antimicrotubule agent estramustine was the first targeted therapy for breast cancer cells, for which it failed. Instead, it became the first (and until recently, only) chemotherapy agent for prostate cancer. Sites like, although laudable in some respects, often neglect these crucial second-order effects.

I love this phrase because it articulates what was previously an unconscious anxiety of mine, its meaning is intuitively obvious (i.e., it doesn't propagate "insider baseball"), and it addresses an important issue. One thing I don't like about the phrase is that the word "olympics" is usually capitalized. I worry that this will hurt its memetic staying power, because capitalization often perturbs the flow of a sentence.