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We call a disorder with an unknown cause or etiology as idiopathic. But what about a disease with an unknown cure — is there a single-word adjective (or phrase) that captures both the current unknowability and future possibility of a cure?

I am specifically trying to avoid "incurable" and its synonyms, as it precludes the possibility of a future medical breakthrough that would render its object preventable or curable.

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There's a semantic problem here: it isn't clear that every disease has a cure; thus, one can't logically say "a disease with an unknown cure" because it presumes that there's a cure we don't know yet. That isn't even "optimistic", it's presumptuous. The disease is currently incurable, as starwed says. That's optimistic because it implies that some day there will be a cure. As jwpat7 says, there're diseases & conditions that're intrinsically incurable because they're beyond the pale of reversibility. Etiology assumes a cause + effect, but disease doesn't assume a cure, emotion does. –  user21497 Mar 18 '13 at 6:20
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@BillFranke We physicians very often feel there will be a cure for a disease we don't currently know how to cure. It's unquestionably optimistic, and not even slightly presumptuous. Don't forget, the disease always appears before the cure. (Yes, it's possible for a treatment to exist prior to the appearance of a disease which it then cures, but logically it was not the cure until the disease came into being, so I reiterate, no "cure" can exist before its disease.) We often see scientific research working towards a cure, so expecting a cure for a currently incurable disease is common. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 18 '13 at 8:11
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@BillFranke Bill, it's not emotion speaking. It's demonstrably not. ALL human disease were once incurable, yet we have now cured thousands of them. That's science. We continue to cure more every day. And I reiterate, if you pay attention to directed scientific research, you can very often see specific progress being made towards specific cures, and then you see the cures appear. That's not emotion, Bill. If there's any illogic at work here, it's the sensationalistic misapplication of data in your last sentence. And by the way, you used "beg the question" incorrectly. Look it up. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 18 '13 at 9:21
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@JohnM: It's used correctly: We've found cures for thousands of once incurable diseases. X is a currently incurable disease. Ergo, we'll also find a cure for X. The initial premise is false: there's no such thing as an incurable disease that's been cured. There were & are only currently incurable diseases. If Socrates doesn't die, he's neither mortal nor a man. The conclusion's untenable & false. Some currently incurable diseases may never be cured simply because there's no cure. Assuming there's a cure is faith. Faith is emotion, not science. MRSA's an example of a refractory bacterium. –  user21497 Mar 18 '13 at 10:21
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@rhetorician not all incurable diseases can/will kill you. –  Dan Neely Mar 18 '13 at 15:15

9 Answers 9

up vote 28 down vote accepted

I am specifically trying to avoid "incurable" and its synonyms, as it precludes the possibility of a future medical breakthrough that would render its object preventable or curable.

That would render this category of words useless, since this can never be precluded.

It's ok to say incurable -- it's understood that there's an implicit "currently" riding with the word, since no disease can be intrinsically incurable.

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I disagree that “no disease can be intrinsically incurable”. For example, various kinds of dementia cannot be cured: brain function is irreversibly damaged by frontotemporal and vascular dementia. Some brain tumors also destroy parts of the brain irreversibly, and some heart disease damages the heart irreversibly. Some of these conditions can be ameliorated, but since they can't be reversed they can't be cured. –  jwpat7 Mar 18 '13 at 5:53
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@jwpat7 That's what people used to believe about a plethora of diseases and conditions a few decades ago. Clarke's laws are worth a mention here. –  coleopterist Mar 18 '13 at 6:26
    
@coleopterist, “Clarke's laws” are not laws in the same sense as laws of thermodynamics, and to believe otherwise is akin to superstition. If disease destroys all the bits of the brain that carry some particular memories, and if those memories have not been redundantly stored elsewhere, then those memories are gone. Also see notes about Third Law of Thermodynamics at above link: “Since 100% efficiency is impossible, it means that there are no truly reversible processes. That, in turn, means that all processes are irreversible.” –  jwpat7 Mar 18 '13 at 7:21
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@jwpat7 ... and by that reasoning, nothing is curable. There are complete cures and partial cures. In your example of cerebral atrophy, if the degeneration is stopped and the cells regenerated, thereby allowing the patient to make new memories, then that is considered a cure, albeit not a complete one. If a patient who has lost both his arms and legs and is fitted with perfect prosthetics, some would still not call it a complete "cure", although it would be, in my books. –  coleopterist Mar 18 '13 at 7:36
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@jwpat7 I would distinguish between a disease, and the damage caused by the disease. Also, the laws of thermodynamics do not truly speak to such a situation, because we're not discussing an isolated system. (It is often much harder to reverse a process, but that doesn't speak to its absolute impossibility.) –  starwed Mar 18 '13 at 14:41

I agree with @starwed's answer. But you can perhaps consider the following terms which may provide the nuance that you are looking for:

  1. Remediless: Not having a remedy; not capable of being remedied.
  2. Irremediable: impossible to cure or put right
  3. Immedicable: unable to be healed or treated; incurable.

Even though they appear to be synonymous with incurable, I've added 2 and 3 simply for the sake of completeness. All three words suggest that there is no drug/remedy/medicine or treatment available for an illness or injury.

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Untreatable is another word similar to #3 and is especially common in headlines describing antibiotic-resistant illnesses: "untreatable gonorrhea threat rises", "outbreak of virtually untreatable TB", "deadly, untreatable superbugs". –  aedia λ Mar 18 '13 at 18:29

An English Japanese Dictionary of Medical Science at hand (compiled by 18 professors and associate professors of Medical Department of Tohoku University and 8 professors of medical departments and pharmaceutical departments of other universities, and first published by Kenkyusha Publishing in 1999)shows the word, ‘intractable disease’ for a disease with unknown cure among others (obstinacy, refractoriness’, inveterate, obstinate, refractory under the headword, 難病-Nanbyou (disease difficult to cure).

I think ‘intractable’ is closest to the disease you’re referring to. In Japan we have a governmental research institute called ‘Intractable Disease Information Center’ who centrally collects, controls, and supplies information of all kinds of intractable disease to medical institutions and specialists.

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I disagree that intractable means there is an unknown cure. Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines intractable as "resistant to cure, relief, or control." The term is usually used when you're trying to treat something, maybe even with a tried and true therapy, and it isn't working. You have probably heard the phrase "intractable pain." As for refractory, it is also defined as "being resistant to treatment." These words don't imply anything about a cure. –  JLG Mar 19 '13 at 23:08
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I disagree with JLG. I think intractable is an excellent choice for this context. –  KitFox Mar 19 '13 at 23:33
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While the OP's incurable "precludes the possibility of a future medical breakthrough", intractable presumes the availability of an existing cure. 難病- appears to be used in the same sense as chronic or rare disease or disorder. –  coleopterist Mar 20 '13 at 4:47

Although I think starwed comes very close to answering Sel, I'm not entirely certain that the essence of Sel's question has been truly addressed in all of the fascinating discussion that has gone on here. What Sel wants is a word that specifically states that the disease has no cure at this time, but also that it is likely to be cured at some future time.

In response, starwed points out that "incurable" does not preclude a future cure, and I think this is right, but if I am not mistaken, Sel wants something more. What seems to be wanted is a stronger implication within the desired word that although the disease does not have a cure, a cure is expected.

If I am correct about this, then I have to say to Sel, in my 36 years of experience in medicine, I have never encountered such a word. That doesn't prove such a word doesn't exist, but I'd bet quite a lot on its nonexistence.

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I have seen this called a disease with no known cure.

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Well, that makes sense on every level: it doesn't imply that it's curable but that there's an unknown cure waiting for someone to discover it, and it doesn't imply that it's incurable. It's quite neutral, which is as it should be. –  user21497 Mar 19 '13 at 10:46

The etymology for idiopathic does not indicate “the cause of this symptom is unknown” so much as “the cause is unique to this case”, i.e., it is not related to other (otherwise known) causes for this symptom. (See http://thefreedictionary.com/idio-.) If someone finds a synonym for incurable more to your liking, it therefore will not have the same form as idiopathic.

(Now if you’d ask for a word for a cure that worked, for unknown reason, only for one patient, a nonce-word beginning with idio- might be constructed; idioiatric, perhaps.)

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As academical reference there is an adjective in Greek language a-n-iatos where a- = has negative meaning (so like “non-”), the n is there only for making the word easy to pronounce, and iatos which derives from the noun iasis = healing.

Normally this word is being used for diseases that they can not be entirely cured, such as diabetes or Parkinson’s disease.

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I believe "terminal illness" is the word you are looking for.

According to Wikipedia (although not reliable, it is great for quick answers), a "terminal illness" is "a medical term popularized in the 20th century to describe a disease that cannot be cured or adequately treated and that is reasonably expected to result in the death of the patient within a short period of time."

This seems to be the closest word with the definition that you are looking for.

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An incurable disease does not have to be terminal. There are lots of diseases which can't be cured, but which don't usually kill you. –  Peter Shor Sep 7 '13 at 12:11

"There isn't a definite cure for the disease" can be used instead.

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Does that mean that there's an indefinite cure or a tentative cure? How about just "There's no known cure"? That takes care of all the semantic problems. Or "Currently, there's no known cure, but there may be one day"? = Verbose version. –  user21497 Mar 19 '13 at 10:44

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