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How generic drugs are named

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Despite what it might seem, the process of creating drug names does not involve a bowl of alphabet soup, someone sneezing and interpretation of the resulting mess.  The process is a little more considered than that.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has responsibility for determining international non-proprietary names for new drugs.  The process starts how all good bureaucracy starts: with a form.  In it, a pharmaceutical company suggests up to six names for their new product, in order of preference.  The application is normally made when a drug reaches clinical testing in humans.  The fee for assigning a name is currently US$9,000 (£5,660).

There are substantial restrictions on drug names which no doubt contributes to the bizarre names we eventually see:

  • The name should be “distinctive in sound and spelling … should not be inconveniently long and should not be liable to confusion with names in common use.”
  •  If the drug is an addition to an existing drug class, the appropriate stem should be used in the name.  For example, use of ‘-olol’ with beta-blockers.
  •  Names should not convey an “anatomical, physiological, pathological or therapeutic suggestion” in any of the six official languages of the WHO.
  •  The letters ‘h’, ‘k’ and ‘y’ should be avoided as they cause translation and pronunciation difficulties in other languages.

The WHO secretariat selects the most appropriate name of those proposed by a pharmaceutical company.  This is then forwarded to a committee of experts for review.  If the committee agrees the name is appropriate, the preliminary name is put to consultation for four months.  If there are no objections, the name is finally approved for use.

There is a flow chart of the process here.  After viewing it you might appreciate why the process takes a little over 2 years on average.  Of the initial names proposed by a pharmaceutical company, one is only accepted without modification 41% of the time.  

So that’s how we get drug names which reduce the linguistic ability of competent adults to that of slow, stuttering, syllabic toddlers.

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