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March 7, 2011 4:18 PM   Subscribe

How do they come up with brand names for drugs?

In answering another question on AMF, I found list of drugs under patent that just all sound like gibberish. Of course, drug names have sounded like gibberish for years, but I was just sort of amused to see just how much gibberish there is out there. I don't mean the chemical names (e.g., fluoxetine hydrochloride, sildenafil citrate, etc.), but rather their highfalutin' brand names: Orudin, Tenex, Xigris, Pindal, Luvix, Ifex, Trental, Zebeta, Fortaz, Ucefan, Cygro, Fragmin, Versed, Promit, Apligraf, Geodon, Zubrin, Baptin, Gleevec, etc. It sounds like an L. Ron Hubbard novel.

Are there conventions for how to name a drug? I recognize that there are some commonly-used syllables (e.g., -vert, -vent, -sil, -lin, -max, -rex, -cor, -pro, -mar, -van, -dex, etc.), which sometimes give an indication of what they actually do (-vent seems to be typically for respiratory tract medications; -sil for skin/fungal medications), but often they have no bearing on either their application or their formula (something like -dex is used in several unrelated medications and may not even indicate that it's a dextrorotated isomer).

Who comes up with them? How do they test the names? Might they actually just be using the random drug name generator?
posted by holterbarbour to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Science of Naming Drugs - New York Times:
James L. Dettore, president of the Brand Institute, a branding company based in Miami that has tested 8,400 drug names in the last seven years (its successes include Lipitor, Clarinex, Sarafem and Allegra), said the letters X, Z, C and D, according to what he called "phonologics," subliminally indicate that a drug is powerful. "The harder the tonality of the name, the more efficacious the product in the mind of the physician and the end user," he said.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:24 PM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are marketing companies that specifically focus on this. Google search on "naming and branding consultants."

The names are linguistically meaningless, apart from their similarity to real words, like Abilify sounds like "ability" and "-fy," as in something that creates something.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:24 PM on March 7, 2011

The names are linguistically meaningless

This is not always true. Lasix (furosemide) is so called because its diuretic effect LAsts SIX hours. Premarin (an estrogen compound) is named because it was isolated from PREgnant MARe's urINe.

Some other proprietary names are intended to evoke the underlying compound or effect (e.g. AndroGel is a brand of topical testosterone gel).
posted by jedicus at 4:31 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's all crazy black magic marketing. A google search for "drug naming" reveals a number of articles on the subject.

There are also some rules involved to try to avoid confusion and sound-alikes. This article describes a bit of the process. For generic names (e.g. acetaminophen instead of Tylenol), the United States Adopted Names Council sets rules requiring specific suffixes for certain classes of drugs, so diazepam and lorazepam both end in -azepa. Their explanation page looks interesting.
posted by zachlipton at 4:37 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I heard from ex-GSK folks that GSK had a contest among employees, which yielded the name "Levitra".
posted by statolith at 5:19 PM on March 7, 2011

There have also been moves afoot in Europe to hand out the names on a random basis, to prevent them having any implication on meaning. Some names ending in 'max' have been denied approval in the past, as have names with XL suffixes, since they can imply 'more' or 'extended life'
posted by blue_wardrobe at 6:03 PM on March 7, 2011

Also, FDA will generally no longer approve brand names that make an efficacy or safety claim -- eg,"Ventasure" for an asthma drug would probably be construed as a claim that breath ("vent") is assured, and would not likely be approved. Nor will they approve names that can be confused with other names when scrawled on a prescription pad -- eg, "Xonex" could easily be mistaken for "Xanax" and would be unlikely to be approved.
posted by ROTFL at 7:10 PM on March 7, 2011

Sometimes unintentionally hilarious examples of bad market research slip through. There's a newish drug for acid reflux disease called AcipHex (evidently they thought they were being clever by having the "pH" in there). When they pronounce it on the commercials it sounds like they're saying "ass effects."
posted by amyms at 7:10 PM on March 7, 2011

I once heard, (and this may well be urban-legend,) that Pfizer had come up with the name for Viagra, by combining "vitality" and "Niagra", many years before the drug itself was actually invented.

As you could imagine, my google searches to try to verify this story have resulted in nothing but shady online pharmacies.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 7:58 PM on March 7, 2011

It's not all marketing - there are safety issues too. The proposed names are also checked to make sure that drug names, when written in doctor's scrawl, don't get confused with other drugs that do the same thing.
posted by kenliu at 8:47 PM on March 7, 2011

While there are probably super-high-paid marketing people that work on many drug brand names, I wouldn't assume that there's a systematic or scientific thought process behind all the drug names. My mother, an absolutely non-corporate, non-marketer type of person, occasionally gets a call from one of her friends whose job it is to name these types of products. She will then sit down, look around the house, and make up "some names that sound like drugs". She writes them down on a piece of paper, sends some in, and they're evaluated along with the rest.

Knowing these people (and knowing how much they're paid) has made a lot of marketing seem a lot more like total bullshit.
posted by aaronbeekay at 7:57 AM on March 8, 2011

Best answer: Answer: Most of the above. I name drugs for a living (as well as writing about them) and ROFL has it right - the FDA no longer approves drugs that have claims of efficacy or even references to any type of attribute. Greek and Latin root words are your friend when it comes to naming drugs; the "hard consonant" trend is on the wane - finally! - and mnemonic devices are trending up. Most of the marketing dollars are spent submitting and re-submitting names to the FDA. It isn't unusual for the agency to turn down 3 or more rounds of names for a drug, and every denial means anther delay in getting the drug approved.
posted by memewit at 11:46 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

memewit, any insight on how something like AcipHex ("ass effects") makes it through the naming process without someone saying "OMG Nooo!"?
posted by amyms at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2011

Ha! Maybe they anticipated the buzz - I still scratch my head over the diet drug Alli, though. I automatically pronounce it "Alley", not "Ally" - as in "friend."
But pronunciation varies tremendously even with drugs that have been out there a long time. Add to that doctors who speak English as a second language, and the best bet it to keep the spelling as phonetic as possible. Prescription errors are serious business!
posted by memewit at 2:51 PM on March 8, 2011

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