You don’t have to be a marketing professional or pharmacist to understand why certain drug brands chose their names. “DiaBeta” sounds like it would help those with diabetes (it does), and “Lopressor” must have something to do with low pressure (it lowers your blood pressure). But the reasons for drugs’ generic names—glyburide and metoprolol for the aforementioned, respectively—aren’t so obvious.
Maybe you assumed that the generic names are chosen through a highly scientific process, or at least devised by the scientists who first manufactured each drug. In reality, the generic names are invented by the two women who compose the United States Adopted Names program (USAN), reports David Lazarus for the Los Angeles Times.
Director Stephanie Shubat and her colleague Gail Karet operate out of Chicago, where they dream up names for about 200 drug applications each year. The five-person USAN council, which only meets biannually and mainly communicates by email, then votes on their ideas.
There is some structure to the naming process. Shubat and Karet come up with uniform “stems” that they use for groups of similar drugs, much like similar English words have prefixes, suffixes, or root words from Latin. Many are intuitive, like estrogen-related drugs containing “estr-” or derivatives of the steroid prednisone containing “pred-” [PDF].
Sometimes drug manufacturers will submit their own suggestions for the generic names, which is where it gets a little tricky, because USAN doesn’t want the generic name to sound too similar to the name-brand drug. If it does, it can cause problems when the patent expires and other generic drug manufacturers try to compete with the name-brand company. For example, the generic name for the arthritis drug Celebrex is celecoxib. Since they contain many of the same letters, consumers might end up continuing to search for “Celebrex” even after cheaper alternatives have hit the market. That name was devised in the 1990s—Shubat said they never would have approved the name today.
In the last 50 years, USAN and international naming associations have masterminded around 11,000 generic drug names. As you can imagine, it’s getting more difficult to come up with new ones—especially considering that Shubat and Karet steer clear of the letters W, K, H, J, and Y, which can be complicated for non-English speakers to pronounce. They also do their best to prevent drug names that could be offensive or distasteful in another language.
For inspiration, Shubat doesn’t always stick to science or etymology. “Sometimes I look at license plates,” she said. “Sometimes I borrow from the names of cats or dogs.”
[h/t Los Angeles Times]