The heart of clever science
It looks like a toy ring made of clear plastic and beaded silver wires.
But it’s actually a heart valve whose inventors believe could save millions of people suffering from rheumatic heart disease.
The plastic heart valve was developed by Strait Access Technologies, the innovation company of the University of Cape Town (UCT).
What makes it particularly good for Africa is that the valve can be implanted without open-heart surgery or expensive machines.
The World Heart Federation estimates that rheumatic heart disease affects more than 15 million people worldwide and kills hundreds of thousands each year. It’s particularly common in children in developing countries – Africa has the highest number of children with the disease, which is caused by rheumatic fever. The fever develops when a bacterial throat infection goes untreated, and this can damage the heart and scar the sufferer’s valves. But treating the result requires hitech equipment and expertise, which aren’t always available.
Open-heart surgery and replacement valve surgery can cost up to R300 000.
Professor Peter Zilla, head of cardiothoracic surgery at UCT, said: “Even a general surgeon in a simple theatre can [insert the valve]. All the surgeon has to do is make a small incision at the apex of the heart and insert a mechanical expander fitted with a valve,” Zilla said.
Zilla said UCT’s valve procedure would cost a fraction of the current procedure.
As with all science, though, it will take a few years before it is ready for the market. Researchers from Strait Access Technologies are planning to conduct long-term safety and efficacy trials on humans and animals.
“The prototype has already been produced and the first sets of animal tests have been conducted. The longterm trials are expected to begin next year,” Zilla said.
SMALL MERCY The synthetic heart valve is cheaper and can be inserted in a less invasive way