For years, electrochemotherapy (ECT), which uses electric current to administer chemotherapy drugs directly to a tumor — while sparing the healthy surrounding tissue — has been used on humans in Europe. A few veterinary centers abroad have also used it to treat pets. Now, the Veterinary Specialty Center of the Hudson Valley in Wappingers Falls, an animal emergency center, has begun to offer it, too. Veterinarian Joseph Impellizeri, the center’s medical director, says the center is the first in New York State (and the second in the nation) to offer this special service. Here, Dr. Impellizeri explains why electrochemotherapy is such a good option.
What are the major advantages of ECT over traditional chemotherapy?
It’s performed under a single anesthesia, is similar to localized radiation treatment but without radiation’s side effects of severe redness and swelling, and doesn’t require multiple treatments. Also it’s much less costly — between $2,000 and $3,000 — where radiation can be upwards of $7,000.
What cancers is it used for?
ECT is used to treat melanomas, mast cell tumors, prostate tumors, brain tumors, soft tissue sarcomas, fibrosarcomas, perianal tumors, anal sac tumors, and eyelid tumors. It’s also very useful for lesions that can’t be surgically removed or have proven resistant to chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Are there pets that aren’t good candidates?
No, but you want to be sure the disease hasn’t spread since it’s then not the best choice. You also want to be sure the animal can tolerate anesthesia. Besides cats and dogs, horses are potential candidates.
How is it delivered?
A pet is placed under a brief sedation, the chemotherapy drug (which does not negatively affect animals like it does humans) is administered into the tumor or by intravenous method, depending on the specifics of the tumor being treated. After this, a number of tiny needles on a round disc are inserted into the same lesion. A small electrical current is then turned on, which opens up the cells and allows the drug to enter and destroy the tumor.
What happens afterward?
The lesions may be covered with a bandage for comfort; they may turn black, scab, and initially look worse. A pet may experience a feeling of warmth around the site for up to two weeks. When the lesions heal, the skin may be left with darker or lighter pigmentation. But most often, it’s a non-painful experience that takes only 15 to 20 minutes, although that again depends on the tumor and its size.
Any side effects?
Lesions are often sensitive areas, and a mild pain medication may be necessary for a few days. In rare cases, the lesion may become infected and require an antibiotic treatment. But that happens in less than one percent of cases.
Rarely. Ninety-five percent are effectively treated, but if a tumor recurs — even years from now — the treatment can be repeated.