Passing by a sea turtle swimming aimlessly in crystal blue Florida Keys waters is quite the sight, a memorable one.
What many people don’t know is turtles often suffer from fibropapilloma tumors, a viral condition affecting more than 50 percent of the green sea turtle population around the Florida Keys. Turtles that have it have tumors that can “hamper swimming, vision, feeding, and potential escape from predators,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
It’s found worldwide in and around developed islands, said Marathon Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach. Turtles with tumors are often brought to the Turtle Hospital where the bumps are removed surgically with a high-powered CO2 laser tool. There’s a new way to remove them, though, one that doesn’t involve putting the patient under anesthesia as is necessary with laser removal.
The Turtle Hospital has partnered with the University of Florida to try reducing tumors on two juvenile green sea turtles using electrochemotherapy, Zirkelbach said. Percy and Daley, which Zirkelbach said are probably around the ages of 4 and 6, were the subjects of the study Saturday.
“It uses a chemotherapy medication, bleomycin, and it’s injected into the tumor so it’s localized,” she said.
Then, an electroporator, a piece of equipment with an electrode on the end with needles, is inserted into the tumor and the electroporator administers a pulse of electricity that lasts milliseconds. Not to worry, the tumor is numbed with a local anesthetic so it doesn’t hurt.
“You’re exciting that cell, opening the pores so the chemo medicine can be absorbed,” Zirkelbach said. “The study went extremely well and we’re already seeing results from the treatment.”
The plus side to the electrochemo is that it’s less invasive, and better for turtles, which might not be strong enough to go under for surgery.
“They do this on humans and other animals, but this is the first time in the U.S. it’s ever been done on sea turtles,” Zirkelbach said, adding the goal. once more studies are done, is that electrochemotherapy becomes a regularly used tool at the hospital in the future.
“We depend heavily on the general public, the wonderful people out on our waters spotting these turtles. They can call us and we can direct them to bring them in,” Zirkelbach said.
The 24-hour hotline to report injured or sick sea turtles is (305) 481-7669.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219