Naming genetic conditions
Genetic conditions are not named in one standard way (unlike genes, which are given an official name and symbol by a formal committee). Doctors who treat families with a particular disorder are often the first to propose a name for the condition. Expert working groups may later revise the name to improve its usefulness. Naming is important because it allows accurate and effective communication about particular conditions, which will ultimately help researchers find new approaches to treatment.
Disorder names are often derived from one or a combination of sources:
The basic genetic or biochemical defect that causes the condition (for example, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency);
One or more major signs or symptoms of the disorder (for example, sickle cell anemia);
The parts of the body affected by the condition (for example, retinoblastoma);
The name of a physician or researcher, often the first person to describe the disorder (for example, Marfan syndrome, which was named after Dr. Antoine Bernard-Jean Marfan);
A geographic area (for example, familial Mediterranean fever, which occurs mainly in populations bordering the Mediterranean Sea); or
The name of a patient or family with the condition (for example, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also called Lou Gehrig disease after a famous baseball player who had the condition).
Disorders named after a specific person or place are called eponyms. There is debate as to whether the possessive form (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) or the nonpossessive form (Alzheimer disease) of eponyms is preferred. As a rule, medical geneticists use the nonpossessive form, and this form may become the standard for doctors in all fields of medicine.
The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC) designates an official name and symbol (an abbreviation of the name) for each known human gene. Some official gene names include additional information in parentheses, such as related genetic conditions, subtypes of a condition, or inheritance pattern. The HGNC is a non-profit organization funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The Committee has named more than 13,000 of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the human genome.
During the research process, genes often acquire several alternate names and symbols. Different researchers investigating the same gene may each give the gene a different name, which can cause confusion. The HGNC assigns a unique name and symbol to each human gene, which allows effective organization of genes in large databanks, aiding the advancement of research. For specific information about how genes are named, refer to the HGNC’s Guidelines for Human Gene Nomenclature.
Next: Inheriting Genetic Conditions