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50 years after Barnard‚ another massive heart moment for Cape Town

After eight years of research‚ 150 rheumatic heart disease patients will have it inserted in 2018 in a full-scale clinical trial.

Instead of open heart surgery requiring expensive machines and specialist hospitals and surgeons‚ the valve can be inserted at a rural hospital by a general surgeon through a small incision.

“A self-homing hollow balloon carries the valve into the heart‚” said Professor Peter Zilla‚ head of the Christiaan Barnard Department for Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Cape Town‚ who led the team that developed the valve and the insertion technique.

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“The heart continues to beat during the implantation of the valve without interrupting the blood flow to the brain and the other organs.”

The announcement of the breakthrough‚ which offers the hope of cheap lifesaving surgery to 33 million people worldwide with rheumatic heart disease‚ comes just before the 50th anniversary on December 3 of the world’s first heart transplant — performed in Cape Town by Professor Christiaan Barnard.

The company that makes the valves‚ UCT start-up Strait Access Technologies‚ won two global awards for the technology at the European Association of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery annual congress in Austria in October.

“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 Strait chief operating officer Heather Coombes.

The head of the UCT medical school‚ Professor Bongani Mayosi‚ said rheumatic heart disease occurred most frequently among 14 to 30-year-olds 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‚” he said. Only an artificial valve could save patients’ lives.

Zilla said discussions were under way with international bodies such as he UN Industrial Development Organization‚ as well as NGOs and African teaching hospitals‚ about the rollout of the valve once the clinical trial and regulatory approvals are complete.

The UCT team is now using its experience in tissue regeneration to create living replacement heart valves that can grow with the patient.