Winning invention is close to his heart

2017-10-31 06:00
Prof Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town, led the team in developing the valve.

Prof Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town, led the team in developing the valve.

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A medical valve, expected to help patients with heart problems, has been invented successfully at Groote Schuur Hospital in ­Observatory.

The valve will allow doctors to repair or replace diseased heart valves at rural hospitals without the need for expensive, sophisticated equipment or open-heart ­surgery.

According to Prof Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in the city centre, who heads the team developing the valve and pioneering the procedure, says his team would begin clinical tests of the valve and the procedure with 150 patients next year.

This will be followed by ratification from global medical governing bodies and production and, if approved, he says the valves will be manufactured for global distribution in Cape Town by Strait Access Technologies (SAT).

This success comes a month before the hospital celebrates the 50th anniversary of the world’s first heart transplant performed by the late Prof Christiaan Barnard in December 1967.

Zilla explains that the valves are made from a novel plastic material, and can be mass-produced at low cost. Long-term bench tests show a durability equivalent to 20 years in a patient.

He says the available valves are imported from other countries and are unaffordably expensive and poorly suited for the affected ­patients.

The newly invented valve seeks to address these shortcomings.

Much cheaper“We conservatively expect the cost for the surgery to be seven times lower than for currently available procedures. The idea was conceived 10 years ago and for the past six years, a team of plus-minus 30 engineers, technologists and surgeons have been working on it.

“In essence, all a general surgeon will have to do is make a small incision and insert a self-homing hollow balloon carrying the valve into the heart. The heart continues to beat during the implantation of the valve without interrupting the blood flow to the brain and the other organs,” he says.

Currently the procedure is said to cost over R550 000 per patient in private hospitals.

According to the report, the valve and the procedure to insert it, which has been in development for eight years, received an international acknowledgement recently when SAT, a start-up company of UCT, received two prestigious global awards for innovation in cardiac surgery.

The awards were held at the European Association of Cardio-thoracic Surgery.

Prof Bongani Mayosi, dean of the faculty of Health Sciences at UCT, adds that at least 33m people worldwide are affected by rheumatic heart disease and any of them would die without surgery.

“Rheumatic heart disease occurs most frequently among people living in crowded conditions with limited access to health care. An initial untreated infection of the throat with streptococcal bacteria leads to an immune response of the body that inadvertently also attacks a patient’s heart valves,” says Mayosi.

It is said that in millions of patients this so-called autoimmune attack destroys the heart valves to a point where only replacement with an artificial valve can save the patient’s life.

Sometimes this happens in children and teenagers, but mostly it occurs in young adults between 14 and 30 years old.

The invention received financial support from UCT and Bidvest as a major funder. It has attracted the interest of other specialists of other countries.

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