What’s in a Drug’s Name?

Whether it’s Fritos, Corvette or iPod, certain products have undeniably wonderful names crafted by deep-thinking marketers. The drug industry is no different in hoping that the names they give their creations will resonate with doctors and, sometimes, consumers.

An interesting story recently published on Reuters.com explained how prescription drugs get their names, and how the sexiest letters in the alphabet often are the key. Big Pharma, it seems, is partial to names beginning with X and Z because they are unusual-that is, they don’t appear in many words-and therefore are memorable. Also, they have the quality of being “fricative,” a wonderful word that means they have a sense of speed or fluidity.

(Why being fast or fluid translates into good, or effective, is something that escapes us. But we’ll just roll with it for now.)

A professor of psychology and linguistics told Reuters that manufacturers who want to appeal to the psyche need memorable, distinctive names not only in terms of sound, but appearance. That’s why drug names like Xtandi (lung cancer), Zytiga (prostate cancer) and Zoloft (anxiety/depression) are hot.

Since 1995, Reuters says, 15 drugs whose names begin with X have been approved by the Food and Drug; seven were launched in the last 2 ½ years.

But most kids can’t be named Rainbow Moonbeam without some social backlash, so names for drugs also must be practical. Both the FDA and regulators in Europe have guidelines for acceptable names for medicine. Manufacturers are not allowed to call their drugs by a name similar in sound or appearance to another drug because somebody might take the wrong medicine by mistake. Also, a pharmacist might mistake a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription and dispense the wrong drug. Drugs with letters including X and Z are less likely to be misinterpreted.

Pronunciation seems to be a decidedly lesser consideration. The novelty of a name is more important than someone’s ability to pronounce it. Call it “the artist formerly known as Prince” phenomenon.

But mostly, patients don’t choose these drugs, their doctors do. So manufacturers coin their names for that group, rather than the general consumer. If a consumer product like an eyelash builder is named Latisse because it sounds lush and consumers can ask for it, Reuters says, a cancer drug must appeal to oncologists and its name indicate something about its medical/scientific basis.

For example, a new Pfizer drug, Xeljanz, is approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis. One branding expert told Reuters that it perfectly represents both innovation and ability. “It includes both X and Z … and the name is really key to the product profile,” he said, explaining that the drug works by blocking certain molecules known as Janus kinases.

“For a doctor who is anticipating this product, when they see that JAN that might be the light bulb.”

This whole discussion is amusing, but kind of creeps us out. Prescribing or taking a drug because you like its name is like buying a car because you like the color. Except that there’s far more potential for harm.

Or are we just over-thinking this?

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