Monday, May 24, 2010

Ball 4. What’s in a (drug) name? The tales anagrams tell—or not—about pharmaceutical marketing

Drug names often try to evoke cheerful whimsy—Pfizer’s painkillers Lyrica and Celebrex, for example, or Boniva, an osteoporosis agent from GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech, are onomatopoetic and light on the tongue. That’s no accident. With millions, and often billions of dollars at stake, a new medicine must grab the attention of both doctors and patients. Name recognition is critical.

But sometimes drug names have more to say than perhaps their marketers intended. Thanks to online anagram generators, these hidden messages are now easy to tease out. Here’s a list of some of the more amusing discoveries, courtesy of the Internet Anagram Server at (recommendation: be sure to try this at home, with the names of everyone from your mother in-law to your boss).

If anagrams contain an inner wisdom, some drug companies should have been more careful when coming up with their brands.

Consider Provenge, a new drug from Dendreon that fights prostate cancer by spurring the body’s immune system to attack tumors. Will men be scared off the medication by these three little words: “Never Go P”?

Similarly, Thrombate, an anticlotting drug from Talecris. Its letters combine to form “Heart Tomb” and “Bet To Harm”—neither of which screams “take me!”

Abbott Laboratories might have a PR problem with its AIDS drug, Heat-Stable Norvir. Hidden inside the three-word name: “A Observant Hitler.” (On the other hand, the drug seems likely to carry powerful, bipartisan political appeal. Conservatives looking for a strong showing in the midterm elections this November might be tempted by “A Thin, Stabler [Karl] Rove,” while liberals who detest the former Bush advisor might want to get their hands on “A Thin Rove Blaster.”)

Meanwhile, rabeximod, an experimental therapy under development by OxyPharma for patients with autoimmune disorders, might struggle against its competitors if it gets a nod from regulators. The anagram maker deems the product “A Bored Mix.”

Even when the hidden message isn’t negative, it’s often telling. AstraZeneca has high hopes for Brilinta, a blood thinner it plans to pit against blockbuster Plavix (Sanofi-Aventis/BristoMyers Squibb) in the multi-billion dollar market for such treatments. But it should have chosen a different name to make the best case for novelty. Brilinta’s most telling anagram: “Rat Blini”—a nifty combination of stomach turning foodstuff and unintended irony. After all, warfarin, the first blood thinner, was derived from rat poison.

Oleptro, Labopharm’s drug for major depression, doesn’t stretch far to hide the company’s hopes. It’s a “Rep Tool.” And, of course, let’s not leave out Viagra, whose generic name sildenafil, provides plenty to consider. Of the dozens to chose from, I’m partial to “Ids All Fine” and “A Filled Sin,” but you should find your own favorite.

Bausch & Lomb’s Besivance treats bacterial eye infections—a problem for people who wear contact lenses. But does this anagram hold a warning about possible side effects? “Even I Scab?” (You can also make “I Van Be Sec,” which sounds like something my Yiddish-speaking Bubbe might have said from behind the bathroom door.)

And, of course, when it comes to medicine, a little metaphysics never hurts. The folks at Johnson & Johnson could have been channeling J.K. Rowling when they named their new drug for rheumatoid arthritis Simponi. It contains—let’s hope not literally—“Imp Ions,” something Harry Potter would have had to master in his Dark Arts class. The FDA in January approved Ampyra, from Acorda Therapeutics, to improve mobility in patients with multiple sclerosis. But people who take it might want to get religion. One anagram from the drug’s name (punctuation added): “Ma, Pray!”

Mud Maracas (Adam Marcus) is managing editor of Anesthesiology News.

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