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Abilify. Nexium. Humira. Advair Diskus. These are just a few of the most popular pharmaceuticals prescribed in 2014; each of these drugs generated over one million dollars in quarter 1 sales alone. While the prescription and sale of drugs is largely dependent on drug efficacy and function, an important part of the pharmaceutical industry is branding and marketing. So how exactly are pharmaceutical drug’s names determined?

Interestingly enough, it is not the pharmaceutical companies that have the final say in naming their product. In 1961, the U.S. Adopted Names (USAN) Council was selected to choose concise generic names through the joint efforts of the American Medical Association, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, and the American Pharmacists Association. The USAN was joined by the Food & Drug Administration in 1967. Today, the USAN recommends names to the International Nonproprietary Names (INN) program, allowing for the creation of one generic name for each pharmaceutical drug worldwide.

 It’s important to read the names of medications! Source: Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch

But how does the USAN Council select names? The following are a few examples:


  • Generic name – Oxycodone
  • Oxycodone comes from its IUPAC nomenclature: (5R,9R,13S,14S)-4,5α-epoxy-14-hydroxy-3-methoxy-17-methylmorphinan-6-one
  • Analgesic used for moderate to severe pain relief


  • Generic name – Adalimumab
  • Humira comes from its function: human monoclonal antibody in rheumatoid arthritis
  • Binds to tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFa), reducing the inflammatory response


  • Still in phase III clinical trials for treatment of hepatitis C
  • Partially named after its creator Li-Qiang Sun
  • Inhibitor of hepatitis C virus enzyme serine protease NS3

Additionally, many drugs (i.e. Rosuvastatin) are sold under alternative names in different countries. This is due to marketing by different companies, as well as pronunciation variations.

Despite these various justifications, the branding and naming of pharmaceuticals can still remain a confusing process. So break out your organic chemistry textbook, learn those Latin roots, and study.

Feature Image Source: Evan Blaser

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