Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Victor Vargas, patron of Venezuelan team Lechuza Caracas (1), left,
hits a shot past Carlos Gracida (2), right, of Mokarow Farms in the
Stanford U.S. Open Polo Championships at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.

Image: Jim Rassol.

The mysterious deaths of twenty-one Venezuelan polo horses became less mysterious and more outrageous today after a veterinary pharmacy admitted they incorrectly prepared the vitamin-and-electrolyte cocktail that was injected into these horses prior to the match. This pharmacy, located in Ocala, Florida, is apparently well-respected: according to its website, Franck’s Pharmacy has provided “personalized, professional and specialty services for the pharmaceutical and wellness needs of clients throughout the state of Florida” for over twenty-five years.

“On an order from a veterinarian, Franck’s Pharmacy prepared medication that was used to treat the 21 horses on the Lechuza Polo team,” said a statement read by Jennifer Beckett, the chief operations officer of Franck’s Pharmacy in Ocola, Florida.

“As soon as we learned of the tragic incident, we conducted an internal investigation that was led by an outside lawyer and, upon its conclusion, we immediately alerted the state Department of Health and Board of Pharmacy,” Beckett read from the statement.

“The report, which we are furnishing to these agencies, concluded that the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect. We will cooperate fully with the authorities as they continue their investigations.”

Beckett did not name the medication, but several members of the polo team identified it as a generic version of Biodyl that was mixed by the pharmacy. Biodyl, a French-made vitamin-mineral supplement that is used to ward off fatigue in horses, contains vitamin B, potassium, magnesium and selenium.

Biodyl has not been approved for use in the United States.

Because Biodyl is not approved, injecting the horses with it “was illegal,” according to FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. Further, even mixing up an identical compound meant to mimic Biodyl’s individual components for use in horses is probably illegal.

“It is my impression that that would be manufacturing a new animal drug,” she remarked.

Thus, if investigators discover that a U.S. compounding pharmacy made an unauthorized version of Biodyl that killed the horses, that pharmacy could face criminal charges, officials said.

Some of Lechuza Caracas’s polo horses after a match.

Image: Veronica Castillo.

However, Biodyl by itself shouldn’t have been fatal and preliminary tests so far have turned up nothing unusual, pointed out Dr. John Harvey, executive associate dean at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

According to medical experts, Biodyl’s ingredients would cause death only if it contained a massive overdose of one of the ingredients, such as 100 or 1,000 times the specified amount.

“If it’s done properly, I don’t think it’s going to kill a horse,” Dr. Harvey said. “On the other hand, if someone added stuff or made it improperly … those would be the concerns I would have.”

Rob Boswell, a veterinarian who works with polo horses, pointed out that an overdose of selenium could be fatal to horses if Biodyl was mixed incorrectly.

While selenium is a necessary micronutrient, in excess it can cause harm. For example, orally consuming 1-5 mg Se/kg body weight orally in either contaminated water or feed is acutely toxic, while an injection of 0.2 mg Se/ kg body weight is acutely toxic. Because sodium selenite is the most water soluble form of selenium, it is likely this is the form that the pharmacy used in their Biodyl mixture. A single minimal lethal dose of oral sodium selenite in horses is 3.3 mg/kg, but a fatal injected preparation would require a smaller concentration.

On the other hand, the horses could have died from toxic shock poisoning. Toxic shock poisoning is a serious but uncommon bacterial infection. There are two types of this condition: one is caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria while the other, newer, form, is caused by Streptococcus bacteria, which is commonly found on the skin.

According to Richard Forfa of the Monocacy Equine Veterinary Associates in Maryland, pulmonary edema is consistent with toxic poisoning. If Biodyl was injected into the horses, he said, bacteria likely infected the batch during the manufacturing process.

But amidst all the speculation, there is no doubt as to the source of the poisoning, at least in the minds of the human members of the Lechuza Caracas team.

“There were five horses that did not get the vitamin, and those were the only ones that survived,” said team captain, Juan Martin Nero. Earlier this week, Nero told Argentine newspaper La Nacion that he had “no doubts” that the vitamins administered to the horses were at fault. Biodyl was administered to 21 of the team’s 26 horses.

“Only horses treated with the compound became sick and died within 3 hours of treatment,” Lechuza says in the statement. “Other horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal.”

A collapsed horse receives care at the International Polo Club Sunday afternoon.
Twenty-one horses are confirmed dead after collapsing before a polo match Sunday.

Image: The Palm Beach Post.

“We extend our most sincere condolences to the horses’ owners, the Lechuza Polo team and the members of the United States Polo Association,” the pharmacy’s statement concluded. “We share their grief and sadness. Because of the ongoing investigations, we cannot discuss further details about this matter at this time.”

So far, several state labs have conducted necropsies of the 21 horses, which were inconclusive. They are still awaiting results of toxicology laboratory tests to determine the cause of the deaths. Sarah Carey, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said she expects the test results “very soon.”

Lechuza’a Sebastian Merlos, right, goes to hit the ball with a backhand as
Coca-Cola’s Adam Snow trails right behind at Royal Palm Polo Sports Club.

Image: Robert Duyos.

Twenty-one polo horses from the Lechuza Caracas team collapsed and died in front of horrified spectators shortly before their semi-final match at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida, last Sunday. University of Florida necropsy results found significant pulmonary edema and hemorrhaging throughout the internal organs from all of the horses, but did not identify a specific cause for their sudden deaths. These results were consist with the symptoms observed in the dying horses.

Sources:

AFP news.

LATimes.

Franks’ Pharmacy.

Comments

  1. #1 Ian
    April 24, 2009

    Now we have the dope we know who the real dope was in this tragic exploitation of horses.

  2. #2 annelis2@me.com
    April 24, 2009

    The real dope was the trainer who ordered and injected an illegal substance in his horses to gain an edge.

  3. #3 Shaheen Lakhan
    April 30, 2009

    Thanks for submitting this post to our blog carnival. We just published the 15th edition of Drugs and Pharmacology and your article was featured!

    Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Shaheen

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