Provenge: Is it vengeful? Is it proactive? Is it even a vaccine?

Dendreon’s new prostate cancer drug has an powerful name. But does it overpromise?

Pharmaceutical naming is a tricky business. In addition to finding a name that’s available to trademark, you have to make sure it doesn’t look or sound like existing drug names, that it can be clearly read when written in a doctor’s handwriting (good luck with that one), and that it doesn’t promise something it can’t deliver. That’s why Upjohn had to change the name of its hair growth product from Regaine to Rogaine – because they couldn’t guarantee that you’d regain your hair.


Recent health news announced FDA approval for Dendreon’s prostate cancer treatment. The name? Provenge. And it’s being billed as a vaccine. As reported in the Yahoo news story, here’s how it works:

Each regimen of Provenge must to tailored to the immune system of the patient using a time-consuming formulation process.

Doctors collect special blood cells from each patient that help the immune system recognize cancer as a threat. The cells are mixed with a protein found on most prostate cancer cells and another substance to rev up the immune system. The resulting “vaccine” is given back to the patient as three infusions two weeks apart.

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Let’s start with the name. I’m not sure where the “pro” part comes from; it could be protect, proactive, or even prostate, but that doesn’t really work because the first syllable in prostate is pronounced [prah], not [proh]. Or it could just be that “pro” is a nice positive word-part with positive connotations and sounds professional and powerful. What about “-venge”?, though? That can only come from either revenge or avenge or vengeance or vengeful, and I don’t think any of those words are 1) accurate but more to the point 2) appropriate!

All of the “-venge” words come from the Latin vindicāre, which is obviously the source of vindicate and all the other words that mean “inflict a punishment or penalty in return for”. Is this what you want in a drug? Muscular Provenge sounds like it will get the job done, for sure, but it has disturbing overtones of attitude and a sense of entitlement: a vigilante drug. I think I’d be worried that bad-ass Provenge would get carried away with its own power and start attacking good cells as well as the cancer cells. Then what would you do? Do you have to bring in a more powerful drug to stop it? A Terminator injection?

The thing that bothers me more than the name, though, is that it’s called a vaccine. The technical (medical) definition of a vaccine is “a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease”. The crucial bit here is about producing or increasing immunity – which is what judgmental Provenge does, in relation to prostate cancer cells.

But colloquially, “vaccine” is understood to mean a preventative treatment: you get shots as a kid to prevent you from getting measles or whooping cough or polio, all of which are still available for you to contract, should you decide to forgo vaccinations. (And sometimes even if you got them: I had whooping cough about 10 years ago and it was utterly horrible. Turns out your immunity can wane over time. Now that it’s making a comeback in some states, you might want to get a booster shot.)

The other cancer vaccines, Gardasil (or Silgard) and Cervarix, are preventative; they cannot treat HPV infections. So it seems misleading to refer to scary Provenge as a vaccine, even though it’s technically correct to do so. I suspect that despite media coverage and the inevitable advertising that will follow, doctors are going to have to spend a lot of time explaining that the ninja Provenge won’t prevent prostate cancer. I noticed that in many of the reports I found online, this use of “vaccine” had to be clarified. Not the best PR move.


Please, Dendreon, stop calling your pitiless Provenge a vaccine. Call it a treatment, call it immunotherapy, call it infusions, call it expensive as hell ($75k!) – just don’t use the vax word. You’ll be glad you listened to me.

By the way, the word “vaccine” comes from the Latin vaccina, fem. of vaccinus “pertaining to a cow”, as the first vaccinations used cow pox to prevent smallpox. Aren’t you glad you know that?


Laurel Sutton is a partner and co-founder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.