How a drug gets its name

A guide to the naming process for pharmaceuticals.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Domperidone, Anakinra, Pancuronium. Prescription drugs have some pretty weird names, but that’s not (just) because pharmaceutical executives have a weird sense of humor. There are actually a lot of science and safety regulations behind drug names.

Pharma companies have to keep safety in mind when it comes to names, because if two drugs have names that sound too much alike, providers could easily mistake one for the other, Scott Piergrossi, president of creative at Brand Institute, a company that works with drugmakers to come up with brand names, told Healthcare Brew.

A drug’s name could also affect how much it costs—it could influence how physicians, pharmacy benefit managers, or investors perceive the drug, which could impact how it’s priced, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

So here, take a microdose of journalism and join Healthcare Brew as we break down the complex (and lengthy) drug naming process.

On brand, or so generic?

Drugs have a generic name and a brand name.

For instance, Benadryl is a brand name for the drug diphenhydramine. The drugmaker gives the name “Benadryl” for marketing purposes, while “diphenhydramine” is a scientific name.

To add another layer of complexity, generics technically have two names: an International Nonproprietary Name, or INN, and a US Adopted Name, or USAN (at least, that’s in the US—every country has its own version of the USAN).

The INN comes first, according to Misti Spann, a principal scientist at the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). When a scientist discovers a new drug substance, they take it to the World Health Organization’s INN program, which names the drug based on its chemical structure and intended use.

For example, allergy medicines generally end with “amine” (like diphenhydramine, the generic version of Benadryl) to signify that it’s an antihistamine, Spann said. And pain meds, like ibuprofen and naproxen, typically end in “en.” A drug’s INN is the same in every country.

Once a drugmaker applies for approval of its drug in a specific country, that country will give it a name as well, according to Spann. In the US, that’s the USAN.

Most of the time, the INN and USAN are the same, according to Spann. And usually, the USAN is the same across countries as well. But there are some drugs, like acetaminophen, that were approved before these naming standards were set in place in the 1960s—so outside the US, they may have a different name (acetaminophen is called paracetamol outside of the US).

Playing with the brand

Brand names are where the creativity comes in.

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Piergrossi said his team starts with collecting as much information about the drug as possible. Then, they come up with about 2,000 names. His team tries to come up with names that illustrate what the drug does, are relatively easy to pronounce, and are differentiated from the competition.

“They want a name that’s gonna be safe to prescribe, but a name that’s easy to market, has potentially an emotive element, something that resonates with the target audience. So it’s a balancing act,” he said.

Brand Institute screens those names through software that looks for similarities to other names, and whether the name meets regulatory standards. Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, require that drug names aren’t overly promotional and don’t make any claims that aren’t supported by clinical data.

They’ve got a little list

That list of 2,000 names gets narrowed down to about 75, Piergrossi said, and Brand Institute then presents the list to the drugmaker. The drugmaker narrows those names down to about 50, and then Brand Institute will screen that list for existing trademarks.

The list gets cut down again to about 25 names, which is when the Brand Institute does some market research, according to Piergrossi. They’ll test how marketable the name is, and whether it’s easy to pronounce and remember. During this time, they’ll also do linguistic screenings to make sure the name doesn’t mean something inappropriate in any major languages, he added.

In the end, Brand Institute gives the drugmaker a handful of names. 

A few are “high confidence” names, meaning Brand Institute is very confident they’ll get regulatory approval, and a few are backups that the institute is still pretty sure would get approved.

“All of that is why the end product of a pharmaceutical brand name is an inventive name that’s very unique,” Piergrossi said.

So next time you’re watching a pharmaceutical commercial and thinking how strange the drug’s name is, remember that there were thousands of other names in contention, and they landed on Philith.

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Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.