At some point in your life, you’ll likely find yourself with a prescription from your doctor to fill. While it’s important to keep track of all the medications you’re taking, that can be hard to do when the names of so many of these drugs are difficult to pronounce and even harder to remember.
Who names drugs?
Drugs get both a brand, or proprietary, name and a generic name that is nonproprietary. Each is assigned in a slightly different process.
As long as a drug compound isn’t trademarked, drug companies decide on a proprietary brand name for the medications they sell. Usually the brand name relates to the conditions the drug is intended to treat and is easy for both providers and patients to remember but doesn’t follow a standardized naming guideline. For example, the drug Lopressor helps lower blood pressure.
On the other hand, generic drug names all follow a standard nomenclature that helps medical providers and researchers more easily recognize and classify the drug. Lopressor, for example, has a generic name of metoprolol tartrate. The U.S. Adopted Names Council, composed of representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association, U.S. Pharmacopeia and American Pharmacists Association, works with the World Health Organization to assign international nonproprietary names, or INNs, to drug compounds. Similar organizations exist internationally.
A globally recognized naming process makes an otherwise confusing name game more manageable. It helps the medical community easily learn and categorize newly approved medications and reduce prescribing errors by providing a unique, standard name that reflects each active ingredient in the drug.
For example, several Type 2 diabetes medications fall under one class called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. Although all medications in this class have different brand names, each of the generic versions ends in the suffix “-tide.” This helps health providers identify all the drugs that belong to this medication class. A few examples include Byetta (exenatide), Trulicity (dulaglutide) and Victoza (liraglutide).
How are generic drug names assigned?
The naming process starts when a drug company submits an application to the U.S. Adopted Names Council with a proposed generic name. USAN considers a number of factors when evaluating a name, such as whether it relates to how the drug works, how translatable it is to other languages and whether it is easy to say. In general, the name should be simple – fewer than four syllables long – and should not be easily confused with other existing generic drugs.
Once a name is agreed upon by USAN and the drug company, it is then proposed to the INN Expert Group. Sponsored by the World Health Organization, the INN Expert Group is composed of global specialists who represent the pharmaceutical, chemical, pharmacological and biochemical sciences. They may either accept the proposed name or suggest an alternative. Once the drug company, USAN and the INN Expert Group come to an agreement about a name, it is placed in the WHO Drug Information journal for four months for public comments or objections before final adoption.