Making sense of drug names

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A drug by any other name would work just as well…

In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet uses the phrase “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet” to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from her family rival’s house of Montague. Likewise, drug naming is used to indicate that drugs from different companies have common ingredients and efficacy.

The following excerpt, reprinted with permission from Building Biotechnology describes the various names attributed to drugs, and the utility of each name.

Drug Names

Drugs have several types of names, each of which is used for a different context. Chemical and biological names are respectively used to describe the composition of small-molecule or biological drugs. Generic names are shared between branded and generic drugs to indicate common ingredients. The trade name of a drug is the proprietary name used by different firms to brand their products.

Table: Types of Drug Names

Chemical / BiologicalScientific description of drug compound
GenericSimplified name based on drug function
Trade nameBranded name, protected by trademark law

The chemical or biological name of a drug is determined using several conventions, the objectives of which are to provide scientific descriptions of the composition of a drug. The chemical name for ibuprofen, for example, is 2-[4-(2-methylpropyl) phenyl]propanoic acid; the biological name for Amgen’s Epogen is recombinant erythropoietin. The generic name of a drug is created using a specific nomenclature system and is used to identify generic versions of a branded drug. The generic name for Amgen’s Epogen is epoetin alfa. Ibuprofen is the generic name for a drug which has been marketed under Advil (Wyeth), Motrin (Mc- Neil), and other trade names.

Table: Selected generic drug naming conventions

Name ElementCategoryExamples
-virantiviralsacyclovir, combivir
-mabmonoclonal antibodiescetuximab (ImClone’s Erbitux), rituximab (Biogen Idec’s Rituxan)
-rsenantisense oligonucleotidesfomivirsen (Ionic’s Vitravene)

Trade names are used to uniquely brand an individual company’s version of a drug. A drug’s proprietary or trade name must be approved by the FDA and cannot imply efficacy. Trade names are protected by trademark law, preventing generic companies from using them even after patents expire, and encouraging pioneers to develop strong brand identity to extend their market dominance past patent expiration. Despite the restriction that trade names cannot imply efficacy, drug makers often select names with connotations aligned with a drug’s intended use. Vick’s Dayquil and Nyquil respectively suggest daytime or night time tranquility in treating cold and flu symptoms.

Other useful names such as abbreviations (EPO is a common substitute for epoetin alfa) may be used when appropriate. Drugs in development are referred to by their method of action (e.g., ACE inhibitor) or internal code name (e.g., MEDI- 493 was an internal code name for MedImmune’s Synagis).

Reprinted with permission from Building Biotechnology

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