05 February 2012

How Are Pharmaceutical Drugs Named?

Most generic pharmaceutical drugs have complex, weird sounding names. Of course, with constant usage, the name gets accepted into the mainstream and is treated like a regular word like paracetamol, ibuprofen, and povidone-iodine. But some names like oseltamivir, esomeprazole, and trastuzumab leaves the regular person wondering how these drugs got those names.

Drugs have two names. A chemical name and a generic name. Civamide, for example, is a medicine that is used for treatment of chronic neuropathic pain. Civamide is the brand name of the drug. It's chemical name is cis-8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide and the generic name for it is Zucapsaicin.

The International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is the body responsible for the naming convention on the chemical side. The U.S. Adopted Names (USAN) Council names the active ingredients in drugs, biologics, vaccines, and even contact lenses and sunscreens. The council recommends names to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Nonproprietary Names (INN) program, which ultimately chooses a single name for each new drug that’s acceptable worldwide.

For drugmakers, obtaining a generic name is a required part of bringing new products to market. Choosing a brand, or trade, name is an entirely separate process. This is so because a drug company owns the patent for the medicine for six to seven years until which the patent expires and other drug companies can manufacture the medicine under their seperate brand names.

Video: How Pharmaceutical Drugs are developed

Unlike IUPAC-sanctioned chemical names, generic names usually describe a drug’s physiological function rather than its chemical structure. Today’s regimented generic-naming process got its start in the 1960s, a time when drugs had grown complex in structure and IUPAC names had grown to unwieldy lengths. In 1961, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, and the American Pharmacists Association created the U.S. Adopted Names (USAN) Council to select concise generic names. The Food & Drug Administration joined the effort in 1967.

USAN Council members believe it’s important to develop drug names that are free for anyone to use, says Ruta Freimanis, who served as associate executive secretary and then as executive secretary of the USAN Council between 1978 and 2000. Brand names might be handy at first, “but eventually drugs do go off patent,” she says. A generic name “can go in the literature, on package labels, or even in educational materials” without copyright issues related to brand names, she explains.

Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) Associate Editor Carmen Drahl explains that until 1961 there was no standard for assigning drugs generic names, which are different from brand names like Tamiflu (oseltamivir), Nexium (esomeprazole) and Herceptin (trastuzumab). That's when three medical organizations created the U.S. Adopted Names (USAN) Council to assign simplified alternatives to the unwieldy proper names the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry gives to molecules. For instance, under USAN's guidance, "cis-8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide" becomes "zucapsaicin." The council recommends generic names to an international agency of the World Health Organization. The tongue-twisting words the USAN Council creates are products of "stems" that describe a drug's characteristics, which Drahl likens to the Latin and Greek roots of many English words.

Drahl writes that these stems describe everything from a drugs' function to its shape. For instance, the "-prazole" ending of Nexium's generic name, esomeprazole, reveals that it is a type of antiulcer medication. Similar drugs will have the same stems in their names, allowing those familiar with the stems to crack the code. The USAN Council is careful to avoid words that are difficult to pronounce in foreign languages or that may have other meanings abroad. Sometimes, Drahl notes, a generic name will also include hints about its developer that a drug company has suggested to the council, as in carfilzomib, which recognizes molecular biologist Philip Whitcome and his wife Carla.


Chemical & Engineering News
American Chemical Society
American Chemical Society
Where Drug Names Come From
U.S. Adopted Names (USAN) Council
International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry
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