Sarcoids Beware: Electrochemotherapy in Horses 'Highly Effective'

In an effort to find a cure for sarcoids, common skin tumors in horses, a group of researchers have spent the past 15 years developing electrochemotherapy (ECT)--a treatment modality that uses a combination of chemotherapeutic drug administration with the direct application of electric pulses to skin tumors.

The result? A highly effective, affordable, and simple procedure that might prove to be the cure the equine industry has been searching for.

"Equine sarcoids have historically been a clinical challenge for veterinarians, an eyesore for the owner, and potentially deleterious to the overall health and well-being of the horse," explained Youssef Tamzali, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, from the Ecole Veterinaire de Toulouse in France, a pioneer in the study of electrochemotherapy in horses.

Since some chemotherapy drugs have poor membrane permeability, they cannot enter certain types of cells, including skin cells. If someone applies electric to the tumor, however, the membranes of the cancer cells "open," allowing the drug to enter and kill the abnormal tumor cells.

"In addition, ECT functions as a type of 'lock' that keeps the drug at the site of the lesion and prevents cancer cell dissemination," said Tamzali.

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Tamzali's research group has reported its preliminary results in four separate publications between 2001 and 2008, including this year's American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum. In these studies researchers injected cisplatin--a widely-used chemotherapy drug--directly into sarcoids before performing electropulsation (see  

According to Tamzali, "A 100% response rate was obtained on small tumors (less than 5 cm) and 98% on tumors of all sizes. The duration of response was more than 24 months,"

The protocol was also used as an adjuvant therapy to surgery in large tumors pre- or post-surgically with good success.

While these results are certainly encouraging, additional prospective, randomized controlled clinical trials are necessary to confirm these findings. Future research will also focus on the use of ECT in other tumor types.

ECT is not currently available in the U.S., but the unit can be purchased from Europe (for approximately 10,000€, around $15,000 USD) and some hospitals in Italy are currently using the technique on companion animal clinical cases.

The review article, "Electrochemotherapy in veterinary oncology," co-authored by Tamzali, will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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