Equine sarcoid is a topically accessible model for the evaluation of anticancer peptides acting by physical membrane disruption avoiding the complexity of a systemic application. We aim at evaluating and improving natural peptides for host defence as lead structures, where we focus on the cationic and amphipathic peptide NK-2. Cytotoxicity tests, fluorescence microscopy and a chip-based biosensor, which enabled real-time monitoring of cell metabolism, were applied. Cancer cell killing was dynamic with an initial phase of increased cellular respiration, followed by membrane destruction. NK-2 was substantially improved and shortened. Novel peptides exhibited a fivefold improved activity against sarcoid cells, while haemolysis remained almost unaltered. Similar Zeta potential and similar amount of surface phosphatidylserine of sarcoid and normal skin cells are responsible for a lack of selectivity between these two cell types. Copyright © 2013 European Peptide Society and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.