Are Drug Names Making You Sick?


The pharmaceutical brand naming world is buzzing with a battle over biosimilars naming, a regulations juggernaut, and a stack of whacky new brand names. This mind-bending situation is causing headaches for consumers and professionals alike.

To anyone who has seen a pharmaceutical ad on television, this texting exchange between me and a friend of mine––who knows that I help companies create pharmaceutical brand names for a living––may sound familiar:

Friend: Myrbetriq? Geez.

Me: It’s a play off the generic name, mirabegron, I think.

Friend: I noticed that. I like mirabegron better.

Is my friend’s beef about Myrbetriq® (a medication for overactive bladder) hinting at a larger pharma brand naming crisis, where generic, non-proprietary names are now preferred over secure and sacred proprietary names? Is the state of pharma naming in need of a new prescription? Maybe. Let’s examine.

Pharma is a different kind of industry. It’s no secret that drug names have always sounded a little “out there.” Drug names are often layered with scientific references and medical jargon, which can result in obscure, invented words. The roots of these bygone drug names show the pattern:

  • Rheumatrex® is derived from letter strings of the condition it treats, rheumatoid arthritis, and its active chemical ingredient, methotrexate

  • Haldol® is the brand name created for the chemical haloperidol, used in the treatment of schizophrenia

  • Premarin®, for treating symptoms of menopause, sounds like the pregnant mares’ urine from which its engineered conjugated estrogenscomposition is derived.

Consumer brand names, on the other hand, are usually more descriptive and easily understood, like Toys R Us®, General Motors®, Healthy Choice®, and iPhone®. Pharma is clearly very different from most other industries, and the contrast is evidenced in its brand names.

A watershed year for pharma. Perhaps the single biggest force behind the unorthodox style of naming drugs today is regulatory adherence. (Global branding objectives weigh in too.) Regulatory authorities monitor names for so-called "look-alike sound-alike" (LASA) names that can lead to dangerous, even fatal medication errors. Due to this LASA scrutiny–­–plus further screening out of names that appear misleading or overly fanciful––some estimate that up to 50% of all new drug name applications are returned as not approvable. If that’s not enough regulatory arm-twisting, FDA, European Medicines Agency, and Health Canada have all recently proposed or approved revised proprietary naming guidelines that raise the bar on creating safe names. Add to that the FDA public debate over “reserving” drug names for companies, and the brouhaha over whether or not biosimilar products should bear distinguishable non-proprietary names, and it’s pretty clear that this year is shaping up to be a watershed year in the history of drug naming. Stay tuned.

There are more drugs approved with unusual names. In the three-year period from 2011-2013, FDA approved 96 New Molecular Entities (NME), up 36% from the prior three years (71 approvals in 2008-2010). And in 2014 the agency has already approved many NMEs, with plenty more drug candidates in the pipeline. Sometimes those newly minted monikers create a melee––with patients, with bloggers, and in the press. No wonder. Like Myrbetriq®, some new drug names do not exactly roll off the tongue: Xalkori®, Viibryd®, Imbruvica®, Beleodaq®, Potiga®, and Zytiga®.

Good names or bad? It may depend on whom you ask. Consumers and patients appear baffled, at least on first exposure to new drug names. Physicians are confused, reporting that the abundance of drug names starting with the letters “X” and “Z” could lead to trouble. Pharma companies, on the other hand, are thrilled to launch unusual brand names that are “indistinguishably distinctive” because they are more likely to avoid problems and gain approval. Meanwhile regulators remain lukewarm, knowing that more approved names can mean more potential name similarity and increased medication errors.

Conclusion. Amid all the fuss, Pharma stands out as an industry that is special––life saving no doubt but also tightly-regulated, legally-cluttered, globally-reaching, and having a distinct doctor-required dispensing channel. These unique characteristics will continue to shape the atypical form of its brand names. In other words, there’s a logic to it.

Unfortunately, as the hunt for safe drug names rolls on (as it should), so will our headaches. The big challenge, then, for pharma companies is collaborating with professional drug naming firms to carve out convincing creative strategies that improve the quality of its brand names, instead of merely cranking out randomly-derived “safe” brand names. That seems to be the ice pack our aching heads may need.

What do you think? Let us know here.

(Photo bigstockphoto.com)


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