Naming a New Drug During a Pandemic
Eli Lilly and Company | December 2, 2020
Have you stumbled when trying to pronounce the name of Lilly’s new medicine bamlanivimab – which received Emergency Use Authorization this month from U.S. regulators?
Don’t feel bad. So have TV news reporters, late-night comedians and more than a few of us at Lilly.
To help, we created this pronunciation guide: BAHM-laa-NIHV-ee-maab.
But, if you want to know the truth, most of us here at Lilly just shorten it to “bam.” Or, if you imagine one of those on-screen cartoon explosions when the 1960s-era Batman landed a punch on the Joker, you can say it like this: “BAM!”
Believe it or not, there is a method to the moniker madness of medicines. Two organizations, the United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council and the World Health Organization (WHO) in the rest of the world vet any and all generic names of medicines. (The brand names of drugs are developed by an entirely separate process.)
The generic names of medicines are constructed using a system of prefixes, suffixes and the space between words – which are called infixes. Lilly’s John Rudolph, assistant general counsel for trademarks and copyrights, describes it this way: “Each monoclonal antibody generic name has just three parts: a fanciful prefix, a target or disease-specific infix and the suffix ‘mab.’”
A drug like bamlanivimab ends with “mab” because it’s an acronym for the kind of drug it is: a monoclonal antibody. A “mab” is a complex protein produced by a single type of cell, which our scientists engineer and then replicate millions of times over.
In the past, a second infix identifying the source of the mab was included – the inclusion of “u” before “mab” indicated the drug had a human origin, while “i” before “mab” represented primate origin. This practice was dropped, leaving us with the three-part approach. In the case of bamlanivimab, the letters “vi” are in the name because the drug is designed to attack a virus. And “bamlani” is the “fanciful prefix” of the name.
Those are the basic rules, but they still leave lots of room for interpretation, creativity and disagreements. The process for getting to a final generic name typically involves some back and forth. “Bamlanivimab” was no different.
The first name the Lilly team submitted was brainstormed among those involved in the science and clinical research of the medicine. “They were working day and night on the development of the antibody and the clinical trials at that point,” says David Murray, an advisor on Lilly’s new product planning team. “They took part enthusiastically, perhaps as a diversion to flex the other sides of their brains.” Team Lilly delivered a couple of chosen names to USAN.
Recognizing the uniqueness of the situation, USAN moved swiftly to consider Lilly’s proposals. It did modify the name, which, upon arrival, actually incorporated elements of Lilly’s suggestions, but expanded the name. (We’re not allowed to disclose the previous names, so you’ll just have to trust us on this.)
Lilly accepted this and, as part of the process, USAN passed the name on to the WHO, where a vowel was changed and a further syllable added!
Lilly agreed, and USAN adopted the name – both noting that speed is needed in getting this neutralizing antibody to people who need it.
In the end, bamlanivimab’s naming was an international undertaking. That’s fitting for a medicine created specifically to fight back against a global pandemic.
The American Medical Association harbors a full list of such infixes, and the rules of engagement overall for creating these antibody names. Word-origin aficionados can pair that with USAN’s full naming guidelines.