What’s In A (Drug) Name?

Deepti Pradhan
3 min readMay 3, 2022

A list of licensed biological products targeted to a variety of diseases is maintained in the Purple Book, a database regularly updated by the US FDA; the Orange Book is a list of approved non-biological pharmaceuticals.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report from April 2022, 62% of adults in the US take prescription medications. Americans spent nearly $370 billion on prescription drugs in 2019. A 2018 study by Robin Feldman found that 78% of drugs associated with new patents were not new drugs, but existing ones, and that “[o]f the roughly 100 best-selling drugs, more than 70% had their protection extended at least once, with almost 50% having the protection cliff extended more than once.”

The names of these patented drugs are almost as overwhelming and confusing as their price tags. Did you ever wonder if there was any logic in how these medications are named? Before a brand name is established for a drug, a common name is established. The name is essentially a two-part structure, where the latter part indicates the function of the drug, and the first part is usually comprised of two syllables and might have very little to do with the (bio)chemistry/pharmacology related to the drug.

So, here is some potentially useful information to keep in your back pocket when dealing with the wild, wild world of therapeutic interventions for diseases. Since many drugs are still under patents, you need to scratch the surface to demystify the name. Once the name is demystified, it becomes a little easier to understand how that drug might help you, and why there is might be an interminable list of possible side-effects associated with many of them.

If the (non-trade) name of a medication ends with “…mab”, it’s a monoclonal antibody to treat the disease.
Here are a few examples:

• Trastuzumab (brand name: Herceptin) for HER2 positive breast cancer
• Bamlanivimab plus etesevimab to treat COVID — these drugs must be used together — they may not be used separately
• Pembrolizumab (brand name: Keytruda) for melanoma and other cancers
• Adalimumab (brand name: Humira) for rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases



Deepti Pradhan

Employed at Yale University, Deepti is primarily a scientist & patient advocate. She runs Tilde Cafe, a forum to make science accessible (www.tildecafe.org)