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Catchy name can spur drug's success

What do the ulcer drug Zantac, the anti-anxiety agent Xanax and the anti-depressant Prozac have in common? For openers, each earns a ton of money for its manufacturer. For another, they all have two syllables and either an x or a z in their names.

Xs and Zs are popular these days when it comes to drug names. And when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the right name can make or break a product.

The controversial antidepressant Prozac has almost reached billion dollar status. Its competitor, Wellbutrin, has a hard-to-pronounce name and has barely caught physicians' attention. Prescriptions are lagging even though studies have shown it to be equally effective.

The brand name for medicines is extremely important because most patients and many physicians have a hard time pronouncing and remembering the scientific (generic) name. Take the popular diuretic, Dyazide. Millions of people swallow this blood pressure medicine daily. Few would recognize its ingredients as triamterene and hydrochlorothiazide.

Even your pharmacist will have trouble saying pentaerythritol tetranitrate quickly 10 times. But Peritrate is a snap. How about the muscle relaxant Soma? It's easy to pronounce and remember. The generic name, carisoprodol, hardly comes trippingly to the tongue.

It is still a mystery why some drug names catch on with the public and why others don't. Effectiveness matters and timing is clearly important, but a catchy name can be a real asset. Why Xs and Zs should be so hot is anybody's guess, but judging from current introductions, the companies expect the trend to continue.

Zocor (simvastatin), a new cholesterol-lowering drug will compete with Mevacor (lovastatin) and Pravachol (pravastatin). Zoloft (sertraline), a recently approved antidepressant, will face off against Prozac. Sometimes the names sound so alien you wonder if they came from another galaxy _ the invasion of the Zocorans against the Voltarians.

When the names reflect the action of the drug, it makes it a whole lot easier to remember and understand. The new nicotine patches for quitting smoking are a case in point. Habitrol and Nicoderm are both easy to pronounce and decipher.

Then there are contenders for the dubious drug name award. Proscar (finasteride) has not yet been approved for reducing enlarged prostates. When we pointed out to Merck that men might shy away from anything with the word "scar" in it, a spokesperson was nonplussed. The company hadn't considered the pronunciation "pro-scar" since their geniuses assumed everyone would say "prahss-car."

Another contender in the dubious-taste category is Penetrex (enoxacin). This antibiotic is being positioned for treating sexually transmitted diseases.

Sometimes the foreign developer doesn't take into account language peculiarities. Prepulsid (cisapride) was originally developed in Europe.

It is an exciting new prescription drug for heartburn that is expected to receive approval shortly in the United States. Too bad the name is so repulsive.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert. Their newest book is Graedons' Best Medicine (Bantam Books).