Where Those Weird Prescription Drug Names Come From

Prescription pharmaceuticals tend to have some pretty weird and wonderful names: Bremabecestat, Vepoloxamer, Nexbolizumab, Orilotimod. They sound more like characters from sci-fi films than something you'd want to ingest. So where the hell do they come from?

Well, wonder no longer, because James Harbeck from The Week had decided to find out for you. Though it might not seem it, the tongue-twisting names are in fact convenient nicknames, as he points out:

It's much easier to say fluoxetine than to say (RS)-N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-[4-(trifluoromethyl)phenoxy]propan-1-amine.

Truth. But that doesn't get to the bottom of where thee contractions come from. In fact, there's an organization called The U.S. Adopted Names Council that has guidelines about what can and can't be used as a drug name:

  • "Prefixes that imply 'better,' 'newer,' or 'more effective;' prefixes that evoke the name of the sponsor, dosage form, duration of action or rate of drug release should not be used."
  • "Prefixes that refer to an anatomical connotation or medical condition are not acceptable."
  • Certain letters or sets of letters also aren't allowed at the beginning of new generic names. These include me, str, x, and z.

In turn, those guidelines shape the names of the drugs. Harbeck explains:

Every name has two main parts. The back half of the drug name is the same for all drugs in a particular class — for instance, there are a whole raft of cholesterol-lowering drugs that end in -vastatin... So where do these suffixes come from? They used to often be based on the full chemical name, but now they're sometimes based on particular descriptive terms: -mab for monoclonal antibodies, -sertib for serine/threonine kinase inhibitors, -mer for polymers, or -imod for immunomodulators. And sometimes they're just made up.

As for the prefix? Well, it turns out that it can be pretty much whatever the company damn well chooses, as long as it fit the rules of the USANC. All of which is fascinating—but you can bet most people will use the brand name instead. [The Week]