'Creation engineering': The art and science of naming drugs

Story highlights

  • Each prescription drug has three names: chemical, generic and brand
  • Pharmaceutical companies often farm out this highly specialized work to creative agencies

(CNN)Yearly lists of the "most popular baby names" show how tastes change over time. While Jennifer, Heather, Michael and Jason may have been favorites in decades past, today's top contenders include Emma, Olivia, Liam and Noah.

The same applies to pharmaceutical drug names.
"Aspirin," for instance, was a name with legs in the early 20th century. Bayer branded its pain medication with this simple moniker in 1899 and sold it around the world for years. By the end of the century, though, drugs were named with a "blockbuster" edge and struck very different chords. The late 1990s was the era of Celebrex and Viagra as well as the now-infamous OxyContin.
    More recently, drugs have reached for even more exotic sounds. Within the past few years, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved Farydak for treating multiple myeloma, Avycaz for abdominal infections, Vraylar for schizophrenia, Idelvion for hemophilia, Luzu for athlete's foot and Byvalson for high blood pressure.
    Saying these names aloud, some may hear a strange and lovely music, while others may imagine aliens arriving from distant planets. Similarly, naming a drug is a complicated process.

    The power of three

    A branded prescription drug is actually known by three names.
    The pharmaceutical company gives a new drug a chemical name based on a set of rules established by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
    For any drug that will be marketed in the United States, the next step is obtaining a name from United States Adopted Name Council. It assigns the active ingredient of the drug a generic name, which must be cleared and reviewed by the International Nonproprietary Name program run by the World Health Organization.
    "This step assures that there is one non-proprietary (generic) name throughout the world for the drug," explained Stephanie C. Shubat, director of the Adopted Name Council.
    With the generic name settled, a pharmaceutical company proposes a brand name to the FDA, to mark the product as its own.
    For example, an antidepressant is known in the lab by its chemical name: N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-[4-(trifluoromethyl) phenoxy]propan-1-amine. The generic name assigned to this complex chemical is fluoxetine. To the rest of us, the drug is commonly known as Prozac.
    "Prozac is what I call the Big Bang of pharmaceutical naming. It came out of nowhere, it means absolutely nothing, and it really just said, 'Wow, OK, this is blockbuster naming in the drug world,' " said Scott Piergrossi, vice president of creative development at the Brand Institute, which names, tests, markets or otherwise works on about 75% of FDA-approved names each year and about two-thirds of the global names.
    David Wood, a pioneer in the field of branding and founder of Wood Worldwide, named Prozac in the early 1990s, before he sold his shop to InterbrandHealth.
    Today, Prozac even appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.
    According to R. John Fidelino, executive creative director at Interbrand, it was the first drug name that took both a condition and its treatment "out of the shadows."

    Prioritizing safety

    Though each step of the naming process presents hurdles, approval for a brand name is the most difficult to clear.
    "The FDA's Division of Medication Error Prevention and Analysis is responsible for proprietary name review prior to approval," explained Lyndsay Meyer, a spokeswoman for the agency, noting that this division can "require the company to select another name, for safety reasons, as part of the approval process."