Cape Town in heart valve breakthrough
Invention could save millions of lives
A TEAM of dedicated heart surgeons, clinicians and medical engineers in Cape Town have perfected an artificial heart valve that could save millions of lives, particularly in poorer countries.
The breakthrough comes on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the world’s first heart transplant, carried out by Professor Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on December 3, 1967.
Aimed at helping millions of patients in developing countries who would die without open-heart surgery, the valve allows doctors to repair or replace diseased heart valves at rural hospitals without the need for expensive equipment or openheart surgery.
The valve and the procedure to insert it, which has been in development for eight years, recently received international acknowledgement when Strait Access Technologies (SAT), a UCT start-up company, received two prestigious global awards for innovation in cardiac surgery.
“It was amazing to see the enthusiasm with which this innovation was welcomed by so many of the world’s top cardiac surgeons and academics,” said SAT chief operating officer Heather Coombes.
According to Professor Bongani Mayosi, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT, at least 33 million people worldwide are affected by rheumatic heart disease. Many of these patients will 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,” said Mayosi.
Professor Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard Department for cardiothoracic surgery in Cape Town, who heads the team developing the valve and pioneering the procedure, explained there were numerous problems associated with heart valve replacement.
“Open heart surgery requires heart centres, specialist cardiologists and heart surgeons. It also requires expensive heartlung machines and other medical equipment as well as sophisticated theatre and after-care facilities. Apart from the high cost of medication, the replacement heart valves being used are imported from North America or Europe. They are expensive and poorly suited for the affected patients.”
The valve and procedure for its placement pioneered by Zilla’s team address all these shortcomings, not least the cost that is a fraction of the price of the valves available.
“In essence all a general surgeon will have to do is make a small incision and insert a self-homing hollowballoon 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 said.
“The valves are made from a novel plastic material, and can be mass-produced at low costs. Long-term bench tests show a durability equivalent to 20 years in a patient.”
Zilla and his team expect to begin clinical tests of the valve and the procedure next year.
Once ratified by global medical bodies, SAT will manufacture the valves locally for global distribution.
The heart valve be can replaced or repaired without the expensive equipment used in open-heart surgery.