• Molecular Ideas

Our Favorite Pharmaceutical Brand Names (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today, we have fun examining my favorite names for pharmaceutical and biotechnology products - as well as what they mean, who made them, and why they're important to patient safety.


Author's Note: A few disclaimers before we jump in: I am not a medical expert. As of this writing, no Molecular Ideas posts are sponsored. This post does not constitute any promotional action on behalf of or for the companies responsible for developing, manufacturing or commercializing these therapies. I did not work on any of these naming projects. All information on the products mentioned below has been corroborated from other publicly available coverage and from product or company websites. Finally - it goes without saying but I will say it anyway: please always consult with your doctor to determine if these therapies are right for you or your loved one.


Wakix®.


Zolgensma®.


Xeljanz®.


Ever wonder where drug names come from? Today, we're going to find out.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."


This quote from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most iconic counterargument against why we need brand names for new drug products. After all, a rose is a rose, and your drug is your drug - calling it something different doesn't make an impact on your treatment right?


Not quite. Just like our star-crossed lovers, pharmaceutical companies, regulators, and healthcare professionals are incredibly careful when naming products that can affect a patient's life.


It's easy to look at a drug name at the end of a 90-second TV spot and ask: "How'd they come up with that? Did they throw darts at a dartboard? Pick letters out of a Scrabble bag?"


The short answer is 'no'. The longer answer is centered on the issue of medication error.

It's true drug names can be strange, but they are crafted through a very strategic process. Drug names have to be distinctive and memorable so treatments aren't swapped or overlooked.


Pharmaceutical brand naming is a difficult gauntlet to run, thanks to the very real and omnipresent risk of medication error. This is when Drug A is mixed up with Drug B. We need to clearly classify different products so the products don't get confused. Medication error isn't a hypothetical issue. For instance, consider what happens if these two drugs aren't similar. For instance, what happens if your diabetes medication is accidentally swapped with a blood thinner?


In the early 2000's, the diabetes drug Avandia® was found to have occasionally accidentally been swapped for the common blood thinner Coumadin®. How did the doctors find out? Patients showed up suffering from intestinal bleeding that required immediate intensive surgery. Even though the names don't sound similar, they look it when written out, especially in cursive. I've found a good summary from the Pharmacy Times if you're interested in seeing the actual prescriptions.


On the other side of the coin, confusion between two drug names that sound similar can lead to 'doubling up', or receiving too much of similar drugs. This can be just as dangerous.


That said, naming a drug is a massive opportunity for a company to state their product's positioning. As the FDA and other global regulatory agencies evaluate name candidates for whether names are "promotional on the basis of inappropriate claims or terminology", many companies work hard to create engaging, memorable, and strategic brand names. Incidentally, the vast majority of pharmaceutical companies do not try to manage this process alone. Agencies out there that specialize in balancing the strategic, regulatory, and other concerns needed to create a brand name are an important and valuable part of the process.


With that said, let's take a look at some of my current favorites and examine the stories behind them:

Brand Name: Wakix® (pitolisant)

Sponsor Therapeutic Company: Harmony Biosciences

FDA Approved: Aug 15, 2019

(Primary) Indication: Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS) in adult patients with narcolepsy


This name always brings a smile to my face. As seen in this press release, Wakix® was first approved as a first-in-class drug for - you guessed it - excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) in adult patients with narcolepsy.


This name is all about 'waking up', with the '-ix' suffix yielding a scientific feel to the name. That said, names as direct as this one are a rare event. It is up to the FDA to make sure that names aren't over-promising in their benefits. Names that do so are considered 'promotional' and frequently rejected.


While the room where approvals happen is closed off to the general public and I was not privy to these discussions, I'd wager that this molecule receiving both Breakthrough and Fast-Track designation meant that the FDA was willing to be a bit more lenient so that Harmony Biosciences could meet a critical unmet need by moving quickly from approval to launch. While drugs may be approved by the FDA, there are many pre-launch activities - sales, packaging, advertising - where having a brand name makes a big difference.


Let's take a look at another name that you may have heard of that sounds a little 'druggier'.

Brand Name: Zolgensma® (onasemnogene abeparvovec-xioi)

Sponsor Therapeutic Company: Avexis & Novartis

FDA Approved: May 24, 2019

(Primary) Indication: Spinal Muscular Atrophy


Zolgensma®, born from the partnership of the biotech startup Avexis and pharmaceutical juggernaut Novartis, is a life-saving therapy for children suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA. This disease is a progressive genetic disorder of the SMN1 gene characterized by weakness and wasting (atrophy) of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord essential for movement. This destruction translates into tragic debilitation of children, who need support to sit up, breathe, and swallow. As a genetic disease, it can be identified as early as pregnancy, but can present itself within 6 months, 18 months, or beyond. Affecting one in every 6,000-10,000 children in the United States, it is classified as a 'rare disease'.


That's the bad news. The good news is that as of 2019, there is hope to treat what was once untreatable. Specific DNA sequences form the code of genes, which are copied into RNA, and subsequently translated into proteins outside of the cell nucleus. However, if the copy or copies of critical genes have certain types of mutations, the proteins they code for will not function correctly.


Zolgensma® is a gene therapy costing $2.125 million dollars per treatment. While that may seem steep, the product is still expected to save the healthcare system money compared to chronic treatment costs. Coupled with a five-year payment plan by Novartis, some states are even working with payers to create or modify solutions to create greater access.


We will have a crash course on gene therapy in a future post, but basically, Zolgensma® replaces a patient's defective gene with a new, functional copy according to the product website. While it does not become a part of the child's DNA, this has the potential to serve as a one-time treatment that prevents the further progression of the disease.


This brings us back to the name. While most drug names tend to combine two concepts or structures, Zolgensma® can be broken down into three constituent components. 'ZOL' is a clever play on the word 'sole' for a one-time treatment; 'GEN' refers to gene therapy, and SMA refers to Spinal Muscular Atrophy.


The take-away is this - even names with multiple technical elements can be made easy to understand, as well as pronounceable.


Notably, the FDA isn't typically wild about encoding the indication into the brand name, since it is 'easy territory' for creative crowding in the market. This can lead to too many names that sound or look alike, which in turn can lead to medication error. The FDA is always on the lookout for sound-alike and look-alike conflicts. As a guiding principle, you can check the FDA's list of medical terminology that is inappropriate to use in a name on their website or work with an agency to help you refine your ideas. In this case, I'd wager that the FDA was willing to be flexible on this landmark rare disease treatment with limited competitors and a unique mechanism of action.


But wait, there's more! Let's try on a blockbuster drug with an especially 'druggy' name!

Brand Name: Xeljanz® (tofacitinib)

Sponsor Therapeutic Company: Pfizer

FDA Approved: November 6th, 2012

(Primary) Indication: Rheumatoid Arthritis


Xeljanz® (or its line extension Xeljanz XR®), is one of the most heavily advertised drugs in the US. Given that it's up against the highest revenue-grossing drug in the world (AbbVie's Humira®), it's not particularly surprising. These two drugs treat rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating, chronic autoimmune disease that primarily manifests as swelling and inflammation of the joints. You may have seen their famous 'Body Language' or 'Needles' ad campaigns.


So what does the name mean? What is the inherent meaning behind the name? Take a minute to think about it.


This is a particularly difficult name to parse for meaning, because it has no meaning. Instead of opting for a promotional or indicative name, Pfizer decided to put forth a 'blank canvas' or 'empty vessel' name.


Why would a company want to do this?


Well, this naming strategy is allows for the flexibility to 'fill' the brand with meaning from other messaging. Medications are complicated, and their effects on our lives, profound. Sometimes, it's easier to build a brand slowly and deliberately than try to fit a mold out of the gate - even in highly competitive spaces like rheumatoid arthritis.


Of course, it helps to have Pfizer's multi-million dollar advertising budget behind you when you intend to fill a brand with meaning. However, that's not always needed. Making an impact in more niche spaces with brand names are common for smaller companies, as seen in Horizon Therapeutics' Tepezza® (teprotumumab-trbw).


Further, empty vessel names are great to capitalize on a drug's long-term potential without compromising its current positioning. While many drugs brands link to the indication, using a blank canvas enables you to expand beyond your original approval in the minds of patients and physicians. In addition, they can be easier to clear the promotional side of the FDA's screening since their lack of meaning can make them less prone to commonly-used letter strings that give rise to sound-alike or look-alike conflicts.


A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but that doesn't make describing that flower any less important.


If you're interested, I've also linked FDA's current guidance on developing proprietary names for human prescription products here. That said, no guidance alone is sufficient to evaluate your name for approval viability. The partner agency behind the names listed above is Brand Institute. They're regularly acknowledged as the "drug naming heavyweight[s], partnering on 75% of drug names approved in 2020." In addition to exceptional creativity, they work hard to account for the many nuances of naming.


What's your favorite pharma or biotech brand name? Sign up to let me know in the comments below!


That’s all for today! Let me know if you enjoyed this brand name discussion and if there are any brands you're interested in to discuss. Please share and sign up to leave your thoughts, ideas, and opinions in the comments.

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