Health Column: How new drugs get named |

Health Column: How new drugs get named

Phil Mohler, M.D.
Free Press Health Columnist

Dr. Steve Nolan, my pharmacist colleague, recently outlined the not so straightforward process of how new drugs are named. Enjoy!


First, the Pharma company submits three proposed names for its new drug to the U.S. Adopted Names Council (USAN) before testing the drug in animals. This five-member panel ultimately decides if a proposed drug name is approved.

The drug name must be simple to pronounce, and there should only be one way to pronounce it. The name should have four syllables or less. One wonders how these recent drugs got approved.

Mirabegron (Myrbetiq) pushes the rule.

Rivaroxoban (Xarelto) — five syllables.

Obinutuzumab (Gazyva) for leukemia — six syllables, three U’s and a Z.

The name should not imply a cure or apply to a specific body part. It must be distinct from other generic drug names, although 7,000-20,000 people are injured or die each year due to drug name confusion.


Big money goes to consulting firms like InterBrandHealth. They invented:




The “rules” of inventing brand names:

Make sure it is not a slur in a foreign language.

Make sure it can be trademarked.

Make sure it can win approval of the FDA and the European Medicines Agency.

Make sure it’s not a “soundalike” name. The acid blocker originally named, “Kapidex,” sounded too much like Casodex (a drug for treating prostate cancer), so it got renamed after eight men with reflux were accidentally chemically castrated.

The FDA will reject names that boast about the drug’s effectiveness. That’s why we don’t have “Angina-Be-Gone.” Rogaine was initially to be named “Regain.”

Brand name development can take up to five years and costs $500,000 to $2.5 million. The FDA usually waits until about 90 days before marketing to approve a brand name. In all, the FDA rejects a third of all proposed drug names.

Finally, generic drugs are not supposed to begin with the letters H, J, K and W because those letters don’t exist in 130 countries that use U.S. generic drug names. The USAN has placed a moratorium on drug names that begin with “X” and “Z.”

And don’t be looking for “ZOKON” on your pharmacist’s shelf anytime soon. ZOKON is Steve’s fanciful invention that he plans to sell to Pharma when the embargo on “Z” drugs is lifted.

GJ Free Press health columnist Dr. Mohler has practiced family medicine in Grand Junction for 39 years. He has a particular interest in pharmaceutical education. Phil works part-time for Rocky Mountain Health Plans. Email him at

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