How Drugs Get Their Names
Last updated: September 2022
Have you ever wondered how drugs get their unique and sometimes rather strange-sounding names?
Or noticed the patterns some generic drug names seem to follow?
If you have, you would be correct!
The way that drug names are chosen, classified and grouped linguistically results from a long-standing collaboration between the United States government, pharmaceutical companies, and the shareholders that fund the process.
Why word-structure is important in drug naming
Before start diving into the history of pharmaceutical names, some definitions are important to cover. There are a few grammatical terms that are key to understanding the naming structure of these drugs:
Prefixes are groups of letters at the beginning of a word that, at least, in this case, are used to help categorize drug names. For example, a medication some of you may be familiar with is generically called prednisone (especially those of us with extra-hepatic manifestations.)1
The prefix, in this case, is ‘PRED.’ Other drugs with the prefix ‘PRED’ can be assumed to belong to the same drug classification. In this case, prednisone is the ‘corticosteroid’ family of drugs.2
Suffixes are the complete opposite of prefixes. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines suffix as ‘an affix occurring at the end of a word, base or phrase. They are more commonly used than prefixes in categorizing pharmaceutical drugs. The suffix ‘vir’ is among the best-known suffixes by persons with lived/living experiences of hep C.3
Direct-acting antivirals, the curative targeted drug therapies still relatively new to hepatitis C care, must end their generic medication name with the suffix ‘vir.’ Notable examples are medications such as Epclusa and Harvoni (combinations of sofosbuvir and velpatasvir/sofosbuvir and ledipasvir, respectively.) Prefixes and suffixes are both examples of word stems.4,5
Hoe drugs are named
Now that you know some basics about how drugs are named, you may wonder, ‘who decides these names anyways?’
In the United States, any drug sold in the US requires a review and generic (nonproprietary) name from USAN. 6
USAN is the outcome of a partnership between the American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association, and the United States Pharmacopeial Convention. It stands for the ‘United States Adopted Name’ program. The program is overseen and supported by the FDA or the US Food and Drug Administration. For a drug to be sold in the United States, a drug must receive the USAN program's approval.7-10
USAN’s naming process is complicated because it must consider many factors and perspectives. In her paper in the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics, Dr.Gail Karet explains that the parties involved range from physicians, pharmacists, regulatory bodies, pharmaceutical firms, and even patients.11
The specific factors when choosing a name are just as intensive. The assigned name must be in accordance with specific syllables in the name or stems. The stem chosen indicates information about the chemical structure, action or indication of the drug. Using the earlier example, such as how the prefix ‘pred-’ is given to corticosteroid medication that uses a specific action or chemical makeup.
The way the name sounds is even taken into consideration. Dr. Karet further explains the name must be euphonious (a very fancy word that means the name has a nice sound to it,) and, of course, memorable.11
Now that you’ve read this post, you are armed with all the information you could ever need about the naming process for pharmaceuticals.
Do you know any equally useless and interesting medical facts? Share yours in the comments section below.