29/10/2017 07:33 SAST | Updated 29/10/2017 07:34 SAST

SA Team Develops Game-Changing Local Heart Valve

It's a milestone in the development of affordable, and more accessible cardio-thoracic procedures.


A new type of heart valve developed by a team of researchers at the University of Cape Town has been awarded a major accolade, and could change the face of open-heart surgery on the continent.

The Strait Access Technologies (SAT) team were awarded two prestigious global awards for innovation in cardiac surgery from the European Association of Cardiothoracic Surgery for their innovation. The award took place on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the world's first heart transplant - first performed by legendary South African heart surgeon Chris Barnard.

"Open heart surgery requires heart centres, specialist cardiologists and heart surgeons. It also requires expensive heart-lung machines and other medical equipment as well as sophisticated theatre and aftercare facilities," says Professor Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard Department for Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town, and who heads the team developing the valve and pioneering the procedure.

"Apart from the high cost of medication, the replacement heart valves being used now are imported from North America or Europe. They are unaffordably expensive and poorly suited for the affected patients."

But, Zilla says, this could all change if their medical trial comes back with positive results.

"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.

"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," he said.

The valve and the procedure to insert it which has been in development for eight years, and now Professor Zilla and his team expect to begin clinical tests of the valve and the procedure with 150 patients in 2018.

Discussions about the rollout of the valve with international bodies such as The United Nations Industrial Development Organization, as well as NGOs and teaching hospitals on the African continent are underway to facilitate the rollout of the valve once the trials and approvals are complete.