What’s in a Name? a Quick Guide to Biologic Drug Names

We have previously reported on the complicated naming issues surrounding biosimilar products and how biological qualifiers, such as three or four-letter codes, should be added to distinguish between them.

However, the naming of the original biologic drug product is well established, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), and follows a set of rules for developers. Of the 45 drugs the FDA approved in 2015, 14 products ended in either mab, mib or nib. But can we decode these complex, often tongue-twisting drug names without having to refer to the rulebook?

Here are a few key rules that can help you decipher a drug name, quickly.

For different types of drug products, the WHO provides the following table: WHO INN table

To take an example, the common –mab stem, placed as a suffix, denotes a monoclonal antibody. Typically, a monoclonal antibody name has four segments and five syllables.

  • Segment one is a prefix and should be random and distinctive. This segment is under the control of the drug developer
  • Segment two denotes the target or disease class, to which a vowel may be added to aid pronunciation i.e. “b” is for bacterial; “f” is for antifungal; and “t” is for tumor
  • Segment three indicates the source of the antibody i.e. “u” for human; “a” for rat; or “xi” for chimeric
  • And finally, segment four tags on the “mab” suffix for monoclonal antibodies

Putting this into practice, we can take neuroblastoma monoclonal antibody drug Dinutuximab (Unituxin®; United Therapeutics) and simply apply the above rules:

  • “Dinu” is the distinctive prefix
  • “tu” is “t” for tumor and “u” is added for ease of pronunciation
  • “xi” means the antibody is chimeric, which means it is about two-thirds human, one-third mouse, and
  • “mab” denotes the class of drug – a monoclonal antibody

For more information on biologic drug names see the WHO’s International Nonpropropriety Names (INN) guide.