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What’s in name? Drug profitability

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Celebrex. Prilosec. Paxil. Viagra. How do drug companies come up with these names?

V-E-R-Y C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y. This isn't just a name game.

For commercial reasons, companies want a memorable name that resonates with doctors and pharmacists — and, with a nod toward advertising drugs in the mass media — patients. Celebrex and Viagra certainly fit the bill, with names that have become ingrained in our culture.

On the legal front, a drug name can't infringe on another company's trademark, even if the name isn't being used. For safety's sake, the name should not be easily confused with other drugs.

"Coming up with an outstanding global brand name often is as difficult as developing the drug itself," said Greg Mossinghoff, president of Inspire Pharmaceuticals in Durham, N.C.

He's only half-joking. It's a complex arena — fascinating, too, for anyone interested in the power of language — that usually involves hiring pricey brand consultants who help on both the creative end and the regulatory front.

Some names don't really mean much of anything, taking aim mostly at sounding good and being easy to remember. That's the goal of the not-yet-approved erectile dysfunction drug Levitra from drug giants Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline.

But Trimeris and Triangle Pharmaceuticals, which recently agreed to be acquired for $464 million by California-based Gilead Sciences, didn't go that route.

"We were more serious about the name," said Carolyn Underwood, a former Triangle Pharmaceuticals executive who helped devise the Coviracil name for an AIDS drug. "We wanted it to say something about the science, as opposed to how you would name a potato chip.

"It's one time you get to be creative," Underwood said of the naming process. "You start with nothing and end up with a brand name that will last for a long time."

Coviracil will be taken by AIDS patients in conjunction with other drugs, which is where the "co" comes from. And it attacks the AIDS virus, hence the "vir."

The combination of drugs that AIDS patients take is often called a "cocktail," so Triangle Pharmaceuticals and its then-marketing partner, Abbott Laboratories, looked at going in that direction too. But not for very long. Too tacky.

Trimeris' AIDS medication, meanwhile, is the most advanced of a new class of drugs called fusion inhibitors that block the AIDS virus from fusing with healthy cells.

Voila! Fuzeon (pronounced "fuse-ee-on").

Other names that Trimeris and its marketing partner, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, considered but eventually rejected were: Diverx (think diversion), Emrane (a play on the cell membrane that the virus is blocked from fusing with), and Jepfor (from the GP41 protein on the surface of the HIV virus).

The latter, said Alex Dusek, director of marketing at Trimeris, was "too goofy-looking."

Gut reaction does play a part in choosing a name, but too much is at stake to leave it at that.

Most companies hire consultants — at a cost of up to $200,000 — whose creative departments brainstorm hundreds of names. Then the consultants' research departments test the names out on the three p's — physicians, pharmacists and patients.

They also do preliminary trademark screening to see whether any other company owns the name or one that's similar. And professional translators and linguists check to make sure that the word doesn't have unforeseen negative connotations — in English or other languages.

The consultants also scrutinize whether doctors and pharmacists can easily confuse the drug with another product — either in spoken or in written form.

"We want that name to be recognizable, pronounceable and, most important, not misinterpreted," said James Dettore, chief executive of Brand Institute, a Miami-based name consulting company.

But the art of a great name is to communicate indirectly.

"If you're too direct, you are actually being, in a way, insulting to the audience," Dettore said. "They can figure it out."