Names of prescription drugs may sound like nonsense to laymen – but to pharmacists and drug companies, Bremabecestat, Gedatolisib, Lulumab pegol, are all convenient nicknames derived from a comprehensive set of rules. A report by The Week sheds light on the method behind the madness.

If you’ve ever been prescribed medication, you may have noticed that brand names are always followed by a second, longer name. Most of us take little note of the polysyllabic mess; however, upon closer examination, rigid patterns tend to emerge. These patterns are crucial to the drug industry, as they allow companies to name the drug’s active ingredient without losing sight of the new product’s fundamental chemistry.

For example, Prosac’s second name “fluoxetine” spares researchers, pharmacists, and manufacturers from using “(RS)-N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-[4-(trifluoromethyl)phenoxy]propan-1-amine” when referring to the product’s active ingredient.

When a company patents a drug, it also suggests the nickname that will accompany both generic and brand-name version of the new product.

But what rules guide this process? And, why do all drugs end up with such crazy names?

Naming a Prescription Drug

Any manufacturer considering a name must first make sure it conforms to the regulations set forth by the United States Adopted Name Council (USANC).

“When considering an acceptable name the following criteria are constantly kept in mind by the USANC: usefulness to healthcare providers, patient safety, adherence to the nomenclature rules, absence of conflicts with existing names, suitability for use internationally, ease of pronunciation, and other factors,” the council advises on their website.

These principles are accompanied by more detailed, restrictive rules:

- "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.

With these guidelines in mind, the manufacturer will suggest names consisting of two parts – a prefix and a suffix. The suffix is interesting, as it is the same for all products in a particular class of drugs; -sartan, for example, refers to a class of blood-pressure-lowering drugs. Other suffixes include –afil for erectile dysfunction drugs, -lukast for anti-asthma drugs, and –cobix for anti-inflammatory pain relievers.

The creative part is in the prefix, which can be pretty much anything – provided it doesn’t go against USANC regulations, that is.

Naming new drugs is exactly as fun as it sounds, it would seem.