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What’s in a name? The process behind drug naming

Sophie Briggs Featured Image Author: Sophie Briggs
Posted on: June 29, 2024

I am sure at one time or another we have all been confronted by a medication with a name that has left us perplexed and unwilling to speak it aloud. Even the most commonly known drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen appear to be named in an almost deliberate effort to trip us up. Furthermore, each drug may be known by a number of different aliases, depending on country of use, brand and formulation – you may not even realise that two names refer to the exact same drug. For example, some may not know that paracetamol and acetaminophen are, in fact, one and the same!

Despite the perceived randomness of drug names, there is a method to the madness. When developing a new drug, organisations must follow a relatively strict naming process, which ultimately provides valuable information on the drug’s structure and function.

The chemical name of a drug comes first, which is inevitably long, complex and involves numbers. This provides detail on the structure of the drug but isn’t a great deal of use to anyone who isn’t a chemist. You wouldn’t want to walk into a shop and ask over the counter for (±) – [2- [4- [ (4-chlorophenyl) phenylmethyl]-1-piperazinyl] ethoxy]acetic acid, dihydrochloride (the chemical name for a common hay fever tablet) now, would you?

To make things a little simpler for us non-chemists, companies apply for a ‘generic’ or ‘non-proprietary’ name for their drug. These names are systematically ‘built’ depending on what the drug is and how it works, meaning that if we break a name down into its component parts, we find a relatively simple and clear description of its mechanism of action. The most useful information on a drug can be found in the middle and/or end of the name, known as the ‘stem’ or ‘suffix’. This provides specific information regarding its mechanism of action; for example, antiviral drugs will have names ending in ‘-vir’, whereas antibiotics derived from penicillin will all end in ‘-cillin’.

So, if we dig a little deeper, we will see that drugs like omeprazole or lansoprazole are proton pump inhibitors, as they both end in ‘-ozole’, and drugs like streptomycin and neomycin are both antibiotics produced from streptomyces strains, hence ‘-mycin’. Using this knowledge, we can immediately identify the function of a drug without ever having heard its name before! OK, so it may not be the most popular party trick in the world, but it can help us navigate the complex medical world with a little more confidence and understand exactly what we are taking and why. Now that cannot be a bad thing.