The heart of clever science

CityPress - - News - ZINHLE MA­PUMULO zinhle.ma­pumulo@city­press.co.za

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.

PHOTO: SLIWA K ET AL: EURO­PEAN HEART JOUR­NAL

SMALL MERCY The syn­thetic heart valve is cheaper and can be in­serted in a less in­va­sive way

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