Who Names These Drugs, Anyway?

If you have trouble pronouncing the name of one or more of your drugs, or you think drug names are getting stranger and stranger, you’re not alone.

Who can pronounce Xgeva, Xalatan, Valganciclover and Venlafaxine?

And what’s with all the Xs and Vs? We wanted to know, too, so we tracked down three gurus in the field of drug-naming. We asked them to let us in on the secrets and tell us which drug that they helped name is one of their favorites.

Caution: If you (like me) have dreamed of taking on drug-naming as a next career, thinking you’d spend a lot of happy times in bars, scrawling your brilliant ideas on cocktail napkins and schmoozing, well, um, better get over that fantasy. Here’s a glimpse at how the process really works.

Naming a Drug, 101

“The art of drug naming is only about 25 percent in the writing,” says R. John Fidelino, executive creative director at InterbrandHealth, a firm that helps pharma name their medicines.

The other 75 percent? Creativity is hemmed in by both legal and regulatory confines, he says, including the FDA’s veto power over the name of any brand name drug sold in the U.S.

“The name can’t sound like another product,” says Scott Piergrossi, vice president of creative for the Brand Institute, another leading company.

There are also linguistic and cultural concerns, says Suzanne Martinez, InterbrandHealth’s creative director of identity. A perfectly harmless sounding word here may not sound so harmless abroad. “If we develop a name that communicates the color black,” she says, “that could be a problem in another language. It could signal death.”

So ”onyx” is probably not in the cards as a drug name, even though it has the now-trendy X and is the name of a pharmaceutical company.

The Meanings of Names

If a drug is going to be marketed heavily direct to consumers, the company usually wants a name that patients understand, or at least like. If it’s a drug for more serious conditions, such as cancer, the name may be more scientific, appealing more to the doctor who decides to prescribe it.

Yes, the names do have meanings, although you may need someone to decipher it.

A few examples:

Simponi
A once monthly self-injection for rheumatoid arthritis.
What does it mean? It comes from symphony,” Piergrossi says, “and is supposed to suggest harmony.” And perhaps simplicity, since the regimen replaces one that requires more frequent doses.

Rogaine
The hair regrowth product.
What does it mean? Think “regain” – but it can’t be called that, because that would sound like a claim. In the US, drugs can’t sound too much like they are promising something. Overseas, Rogaine is, in fact, Regaine.

Viagra
The drug for erectile dysunction
What does it mean? Think vitality, vim, vigor, Fidelino says. Viagra is one of his favorites among the drugs he’s helped to name, right up there with…

Cialis
The Viagra alternative.
What does it mean? Ciel is ”sky” in French. ”Is” hints at system, Fidelino says. Put together, it is a ”lifting system.” Ha!

Latisse
The lash-lengthening medication and Piergrossi’s favorite among the drug names that he’s come up with.
What does it mean? The “LA” denotes lash, and the ”tisse” hints of Matisse, the famous French artist, to convey elegance and femininity, he says.

Bexsero
A vaccine for potentially lethal meningococcal group B infection.
What does it mean? The name, which Martinez came up with and is one of her faves, refers to the serogroup or strain of bacteria causing the infection of the brain, spinal cord or blood. Clearly, this name was designed to appeal to the pros.

So, what’s with the Xs and Vs?

“X, V and certain other characters have orthographic distinctiveness,” Piergrossi says. That means the name is not likely to be confused with another drug with a similar name and lead to fatal medication mix ups.

X and V also seem to convey speed and power, a good thing depending on the drug, Piergrossi says.

The initial list of possible names for a new drug can easily reach 2,000, Piergrossi says. Eventually, it’s whittled down to two or three for regulatory consideration.

Lots of opinions weigh in. “We talk to professionals, to pharmacists, we customize a panel of doctors most likely to use the drug,” Martinez says. And they often talk to patients, too.

What’s the craziest drug name you’ve come across?

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