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All in a name: safety first

Most companies when naming a drug want to use something catchy and simple, which will not confuse doctors or patients and maintain safety in a regulatory climate where there is no room for error

What makes a successful name for a drug? Most companies when naming a drug want to use something catchy and simple, which will not confuse doctors or patients and maintain safety in a regulatory climate where there is no room for error.

Drug molecules usually start life as a serial number, which is then given a generic drug name. In the US, for example, a generic name is selected by the US Adopted Names Council and will reflect its class (glitazone, mab, etc). The generic form is often an evil tongue twister, with end users pronouncing them in different ways.

For the branded drug name, the process is much more creative. The drug's brand name must be unique to protect the trademark and should not sound or look too much like any other drug name to avoid medical errors. Also, the name should tell a story, signify property, possibly inform on use and have some emotional element.

The FDA reviews approximately 400 drug brand names annually before they reach the marketing stage and rejects about a third. The last time the FDA changed a drug name was in 2005 when the diabetes treatment Amaryl was confused with the Alzheimer's disease drug Reminyl, with the result that one person died. Thus Amaryl is now called Razadyne.

The drug-branding consulting industry has grown over the last decade to help companies find the right name for a new drug and per product consultation can cost between USD 200,000 to USD 500,000. Expensive at first glance, but the name of a drug can decide whether it becomes a blockbuster or languishes at the bottom of the sales table.

An FDA cited the following case studies illustrating brand name confusions: a child died after receiving methadone instead of methylphenidate; a teenager showed signs of potentially fatal complications after being given clozapine instead of olanzapine; and a middle-aged woman ended up in hospital after taking prostate treatment Flomax instead of bronchospasm treatment Volmax.

There are now more than 30,000 prescription drugs trademarked in the US, while this number rises to almost 150,000 in the EU. The main task facing a drug consultant company is to invent a name that does not already exist, will not lead to prescribing errors and will help identify the product in a sea of others.

US-based Eli Lilly's cancer drug LY-231514 became multi-targeted antifolate (MTA) as a generic name. Lilly wanted to include MTA in the branded name to help researchers looking for data on the drug. Lilly itself eventually came up with the brand name Alimta.

Unusually, Alimta was available in the 85 countries where the company would finally market the product. The regulatory authorities cleared the name as not over- promising or confusing. Lilly's marketing team chose the name from a story they drew up around the product.

24th September 2007


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