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As South Africa prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the world’s first human heart transplant next weekend, a team of local surgeons, clinicians and medical engineers have made another breakthrough.

The team has created an affordable, plastic heart valve, which can be mass produced.

It is aimed at millions of patients in developing countries, mostly young people who suffer from rheumatic heart disease, who would otherwise die without open-heart surgery. The valve was invented and is manufactured by a UCT start-up company Strait Access Technologies after eight years of research.

About 150 rheumatic heart disease patients will have this valve inserted next year as part of a clinical trial.

Professor Peter Zilla, head of the Christiaan Barnard Cardiothoracic Surgery Department at UCT led the team that developed the valve. He said unlike open-heart surgery, requiring expensive machines and specialist hospitals the valve could be inserted by a general surgeon through a small incision.

About 33 million people worldwide live with rheumatic heart disease. The condition starts as a throat infection. The infection leads to an immune response which damages patient’s heart valves. It mostly affects children, adolescents and young adults who live in poor communities.

The breakthrough comes on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant performed by Dr Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital on December 3, 1967.