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The Indianapolis Star

September 22, 2007

When naming a drug, it's an inexact science

From Alimta to Lunesta to Viagra, drug makers seek catchy product names that won't confuse doctors

By John Russell

Take a deep breath and try this tongue-twister:

Xyrem. Kixeva. Vfend. Norvasc. Astiq. Zosyn.

It looks like someone dropped Scrabble tiles randomly on a table. Vowels and consonants are out of place. Rare letters, such as Z, X and Q, show up with surprising frequency.

But these words -- and hundreds like them -- are some of the most valuable names in the drug industry.

They represent big-selling pharmaceutical drugs that treat diseases from cancer to schizophrenia -- products that rake in billions of dollars a year.

In the past decade, the drug-brand consulting industry has grown dramatically to help companies, including Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., find the right name for a new drug. The price often runs $200,000 to $500,000 per product.

The name can make the difference between whether a drug becomes a blockbuster or a flop. The right name can give a drug cachet. The wrong name can lead to serious medical errors.

According to the Food and Drug Administration's Web site, an 8-year-old died after receiving methadone instead of methylphenidate. A 19-year-old man showed signs of potentially fatal complications after he was given clozapine instead of olanzapine. A 50-year-old woman was hospitalized after taking Flomax, used to treat an enlarged prostate, instead of Volmax, used to relieve bronchospasm.

"The actual screening of brand names today is under more scrutiny than ever because of the safety aspect," said James Dettore, chief executive of Brand Institute of Miami, a drug-consulting company.

Then there's the challenge of finding a unique name. More than 30,000 prescription drugs are trademarked in the United States. That number rises to nearly 150,000 in Europe.

It's the job of drug consultants to create a name that's not already taken, won't lead to medical mixups and can help cut through the marketing clutter.

But what makes a good name?

"A lot of it is more art than science," said William Trombetta, professor of pharmaceutical marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "There are certain letters that express power and control, like Z, M or P. Other letters, like S, are more passive. Depending on what the drug does, you want to give the name certain features."

Want to sound high-tech? Go for lots of Z's and X's, such as Xanax, Xalatan, Zyban and Zostrix.

Want to sound poetic? Try Lyrica, Truvada and Femara.

Want to suggest what it does? Flonase is an allergy medicine that aims to stop nasal flow. Lunesta, a sleeping drug, implies luna, or moon -- a full night's sleep. Humulin is shorthand for "human insulin," a new therapeutic treatment for diabetics that follows decades of animal insulin. Lipitor, a cholesterol fighter that is the world's best-selling drug, suggests "lipids" or fats.

And then there's Viagra, the erectile-dysfunction drug made by Pfizer. It uses the prefix "vi" to suggest vigor and vitality. The word rhymes with Niagara, suggesting a mighty flow.

"You know exactly what Pfizer was trying to say with that," said Andy Valvur, senior brand strategist at Igor, a San Francisco branding company.

Drug names can suggest, but under FDA rules they can't come right out and make medical claims. That's why you won't see TumorBeGone or CureAll.

Rogaine, the hair-regrowth drug, started out slightly differently. "It was Regain, as in regain your hair, but the FDA shot that down as a claim because it promised too much," Trombetta said.

Lilly's search a few years ago for a name for a new cancer drug shows how involved the process can be. The drug, like every other Lilly drug, started out as a chemical name: LY-231514. Its generic name, used by drug professionals when the drug is ready for testing and marketing, was multi-targeted antifolate, or MTA for short.

The company wanted a brand name to include the letters MTA, in that order, to help future researchers who might be looking for data. Lilly hired a drug consultant to comb through the possibilities. But a Lilly employee came up with the winning suggestion: Alimta.

That name was available in all 85 countries where Lilly eventually marketed the product, which was unusual in itself. (Many drugs go by different brand names from country to country.) The regulatory authorities cleared the name as not over- promising or confusing.

"Afterward, we had a little fun creating a story to go with it," said Bob Marchesani, global marketing manager for Alimta. "It sounded like Olympus, home of the gods, above a storm or cloud. So maybe patients who would get Alimta would be above the storm of cancer."