Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers When I use a word …

That's show business

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 09 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:972
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    The names of drugs are usually coined from words related to their chemical structures. For example, the full chemical name for a popular analgesic is N-acetyl-para-aminophenol. Simpler to use the British Approved Name, paracetamol, which is just a contraction of the full name, as is acetaminophen, the United States Adoped Name.

    But some drug names have unusual origins. For instance, a few are derived from the entertainment business.

    P Sensi and his colleagues at Lepetit Research Laboratories in Milan had the habit of giving new compounds nicknames, later substituting names that would be acceptable to scientific journals. Matamycin, for example (Antibiot Chemother 1959;9:76), was originally nicknamed Mata Hari. And when in 1957 they isolated a group of antibiotics from the fungus Streptomyces mediterranei (now called Norcadia mediterranea) they called them rifamycins, from the title of the French gangster film, Rififi, directed by Jules Dassin (1955). Rifampicin was the N-amino-N'-methylpiperazine (AMP) derivative—hence rif-amp-icin. Rififi is French argot for trouble, and the original title of the film was Du Rififi Chez les Hommes, which we might nowadays translate as Men Behaving Badly. The chief feature of the film was the half hour documentary-like sequence during which a bank robbery is staged in total silence. The startling effect of the return of sound to the screen was harnessed again by Dassin in another account of an unsuccessful heist, Topkapi (1964), based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day.

    Then there is opera. In 1977 several novel compounds were isolated from a substance known as bohemic acid complex III. Their discoverers named them marcellomycin, musettamycin, rudolphomycin, mimimycin, collinemycin, alcindoromycin, and schaunardimycin. Another compound was called bohemamine. Recall the plot of Puccini's opera La Bohème. Rodolfo and Marcello, poet and painter respectively, trying to work in their bitterly cold garret, are joined by their fellow lodgers, Colline (a philosopher) and Schaunard (a musician). Rodolfo meets a neighbour, Mimi, with whom he falls in love Marcello's former lover, Musetta, gets rid of her ageing admirer, Alcindoro, and rejoins Marcello, but they later separate again Rodolfo leaves Mimi too, but they are reunited just before she dies Unfortunately, ignoring the symmetry of the plot, mimimycin is the 10 epimer of marcellomycin and collinemycin the 10 epimer of musettamycin—not the proper pairings at all. The spelling of rudolphomycin is also curious. In Henri Murger's original stories, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the poet's name is Rodolphe, while Puccini, being Italian, spelt the name Rodolfo Perhaps the discoverers of these compounds (J Nat Prod 1980;43:242-58 and 1984;47:698-701) just made a mistake.

    These - mycins are all anthracycline antibiotics, effective against cancers But I wonder if they might have cured Mimi of her tuberculosis.

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