Promising breakthrough treatment for HIV using stem cells.

Senate Fountain beside the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Senate Fountain beside the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

We will start by understanding what is HIV and what is stem cell. Then we will talk about the new breakthrough treatment for HIV and AIDS patients.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. Over time, HIV weakens a person’s immune system so it has a very hard time fighting diseases. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

World-wide approximately 38 million people are currently living with HIV, and tens of millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes.

HIV spreads through sexual contact or blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.

HIV presents with fever, chills, rash, night sweats, sore throat, fatigue and swollen lymph glands.

AIDS is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but medications can dramatically slow the progression of the disease. These drugs have reduced AIDS deaths in many developed nations.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are primitive cells. They are body’s raw materials. From these cells all other cells with specialized functions are generated. They can help repair rebuild damaged cells. Stem cell therapy is mostly used for treating certain types of cancer or bleeding disorders, such as sickle cell disease.

Stem cells can be isolated from the body in different ways. They can be obtained from a donor’s bone marrow, from blood in the umbilical cord when a baby is born, or from a person’s circulating blood. Cord stem cells are often successful, even when their immune markers only partially match the recipient’s.

Now let us discuss recent newspaper headlines. “First Woman Has Been ‘Cured’ of HIV Using Stem Cells.” Another headline says, “Stem-cell treatment may have cured woman of HIV.” Why is this making headlines? Because this novel treatment using umbilical cord blood could help dozens of people with both HIV and aggressive cancers.

This exciting story is about a middle-aged woman of mixed race who had HIV and acute myeloid leukemia. A woman of mixed race has never been treated like this before. Doctors have cured HIV in two white men, and this is the first such report in a woman. It is also the first time a person who identifies as mixed race has received the treatment.

This lady first received high-dose chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia – a treatment that destroys blood cells – then she received the stem cell transplant from specialists at Weill Cornell Medicine, in New York City.

They used transplant cells from two sources: stem cells from a healthy adult relative and umbilical cord blood from an unrelated newborn. The stem cells, from umbilical cord blood, contained a gene variant that makes them resistant to HIV infection. Since the transplant 14 months ago the woman is doing well.

Scientists believe the success of the new method involving umbilical cord blood could allow doctors to help more people of diverse genders and racial backgrounds.

Why is this breakthrough treatment making news?

This was the first case of HIV treatment using umbilical cord blood, which is less invasive and more widely available than invasive bone marrow transplants that cured the two male patients. Cord blood donors don’t need to be matched as closely to the recipient as bone marrow donors, so it can be an option for patients with uncommon tissue types.

Scientists are carefully watching the situation. Despite the apparent success of the treatment, it won’t be available to most of the 38 million people living with HIV around the world just yet. In the meantime, scientists are carefully monitoring this lady’s long-term prognosis. Now, 14 months after the treatment, the HIV infection has not re-emerged. The patient has also been leukemia-free for four years.

We wish her well. Kudos to the doctors involved in her treatment. Let us hope we can get rid of COVID-19 soon so we can return to normal life. Take care and stay healthy.

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What have we learned about COVID-19?

Red Rock Coulee in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Red Rock Coulee in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Here is the good news. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada is slowing down. But the bad news is, health officials warned it could come back with a vengeance this fall if contact tracing and testing aren’t stepped up.

What we are trying to do is to contain the virus because there is no vaccine or medications to kill the virus. Once the lockdown is lifted, it will leave many people vulnerable to infection as they begin to venture out again.

Unless there is a miracle, SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine will take time to be ready to be used.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Alberta has the third-most number of cases of COVID-19 in Canada. By June 3, there were 7,076 confirmed cases and 145 deaths. The majority of cases have been in the Calgary zone, which has 4,909 cases.

What do we know about coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that originated in China.

There are people who are infected but have no symptoms. Others have mild to moderate to severe symptoms.

Classical COVID-19 symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. That is the incubation period. The common presentation is fever, cough, and tiredness.

Other symptoms can include: shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, muscle aches, chills, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, headache, and chest pain.

Other less common symptoms have been reported, such as rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

People who are older or who have existing chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, severe obesity, chronic kidney or liver disease, or have compromised immune systems may be at higher risk of serious illness.

It is important you contact your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms. You should call 911 if you have trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, inability to stay awake, new confusion, blue lips or face.

The virus appears to spread easily among people. Data has shown that it spreads from person to person among those in close contact (within about six feet, or two meters). The virus spreads by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes or talks. These droplets can be inhaled or land in the mouth or nose of a person nearby.

It can also spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes.

Prevention is better than cure. Since there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 the next best thing is to reduce your risk of infection by doing the following:

  1. Avoid large gatherings
  2. Avoid close contact
  3. Stay home as much as possible
  4. Wash hands often
  5. Wear a mask in public places
  6. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.

If you have COVID-19 related symptoms you are legally required to isolate yourself.

If you have symptoms, take the online assessment to arrange testing.

Take care. Stay healthy.

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There is something about feet and the toenails that fungi just love.

Sunset boating in Chicago. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Sunset boating in Chicago. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“There are about 80 types of fungi residing on a typical person’s heel, along with 60 between the toes and 40 on the toenails,” says an article in the Globe and Mail (Social Studies May 24, 2013).

It goes on to say that the feet are home to more than 100 types of fungus, more than any other area of the human body, quoting a study published in the journal Nature.

Many of the fungi on our skin are good for us in that they prevent bad fungi adhering to our skin. They protect us from getting athlete’s foot, plantar warts and stubborn toenail problems.

Most problems are not life threatening. Here are some examples:

Plantar warts: These are also known as common warts. They grow on the soles of the feet. They grow into the skin because we walk on them. They can be painful on walking. The virus causing the wart is picked up from walking bear foot in locker rooms and swimming pools.

Treatment: They may spontaneously disappear if you wait long enough – months to years. They can be managed by freezing, scrapping or burning. They can recur.

Callus and corns: These are thickened areas on the hands or feet caused by pressure or friction. This is usually related to work or sporting activities. Uneven pressure of body weight during walking or ill-fitting shoes can cause calluses and corns on the feet.

Treatment: Wear proper fitting shoes and use corn pads to relieve pressure on the corns. Thick calluses can be sliced down to normal skin over a period of time. If the source of friction and pressure is removed then corns and calluses should not recur.

Toenail problems: Mainly involves the big toe. It may be ingrown or overgrown. Ingrown toenails are commonly due to ill-fitting shoes pressing on an incorrectly cut nail. Poor foot hygiene encourages infection.

The problem occurs when sweaty feet are encased in tight shoes. The situation gets worse when the nail is trimmed short and the corners are curved down. The side of the nail curls inwards and grows to form outer spikes. This causes painful infection of the overhanging nail fold.

Treatment: In an acute stage antibiotic, painkillers and bathing the foot in warm salt water are necessary. Surgery is required in most cases. The problem can be prevented from recurring by keeping the feet clean and wear correctly fitting shoes. Cut the nail straight.

Fungus infection of the nails: Usually affects toenails. The nail is thickened and discolored. It is usually yellowish. The nail may grow in a twisted manner. The infection is picked up in a public place where it is transmitted from person to person. Poor feet hygiene does not help.

Treatment: Anti-fungal therapy is required – orally and locally for three months. Cure rate is around 80 percent. Ongoing meticulous foot care is very important to prevent recurrence.

Our feet are subjected to more wear and tear and hence they get more problems than our hands. Our natural tendency is to take care of our hands more than our feet. Many of these problems are preventable.

In my view, walking bear feet is the worst thing you can do for your feet. Wash your feet at least once a day (twice if your feet sweat a lot) with soap and water. Dry them well with a soft towel. Apply some skin lotion or powder. Wear good quality clean socks and proper fitting comfortable shoes.

Have a wonderful Christmas and Holiday Season.

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Measles is a Highly Contagious Viral Infection of the Respiratory Tract

Cacti on a golf course in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Cacti on a golf course in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Measles is making bad news. It seems to have started in Disneyland. A place where kids go for fun. How ironic and sad. And it has spread to several states in the U.S.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, 50 people from six states were reported to have had measles in the first two weeks of this month. Most of these cases are part of a large, ongoing outbreak linked to Disneyland in California.

According to CBS news (January 22, 2015), at least 75 people have now been infected with measles virus. The California public health officials are urging those who haven’t been vaccinated against the disease, including children too young to be immunized, to avoid Disney theme parks.

Age of people infected ranges from seven months to 70 years old, including five Disneyland workers.

Measles spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing. It starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, and sore throat, and is followed by a rash that spreads all over the body. About three out of 10 people who get measles will develop one or more complications including pneumonia, ear infections, or diarrhea. Complications are more common in adults and young children.

Alberta had a measles outbreak last year. On April 29, 2014, Alberta Health Services declared a measles outbreak in the Calgary, Central and Edmonton Zones of Alberta Health Services (AHS). By July, AHS declared the outbreak to be over.

The best way to prevent measles is to have Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) Vaccine. All health care workers should be vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine. Health care workers are at greater risk of measles infection than the general population because they provide care for ill individuals. A recent review concluded that health care workers were 13 to 19 times more likely to develop measles than other adults.

MMR vaccine is highly effective at preventing measles. One dose is 85-95 per cent effective and the effectiveness of two doses approaches 100 per cent. Two doses provide long-lasting immunity. The vaccines are very safe.

Measles was eradicated by year 2000 because of vaccination. But the virus has made a comeback in recent years, in part because of people obtaining “personal belief exemptions” from rules that say children must get their shots to enroll in school. Others still believe in now-discredited research linking the measles vaccine to autism.

Who started the current outbreak? Should we blame people who refuse to get vaccinated because they believe it is harmful to their children? Apparently, a small number of those stricken had been fully vaccinated. It is also reported the outbreak was triggered by a measles-stricken visitor to one of the Disney parks who brought the virus from abroad last month.

Coughing and sneezing spreads the highly contagious virus. Deaths are caused by complications associated with the disease. Complications are more common in children under the age of five or adults over the age of 20.

There is no specific antiviral treatment. Mostly symptomatic treatment is provided for symptoms and complications. The measles vaccine has been in use for 50 years. It is safe, effective and inexpensive. It costs approximately one U.S. dollar to immunize a child against measles. And it saves lives.

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