The Public Understanding of Science is a British-based movement that supported the establishment of Café Scientifique in the late 1990s. It is an idea – rather than a specific place – that has spread to many countries around the world, including South Africa. Their motto is “science for the price of a coffee” and the gathering provides a forum for the public to engage in a discussion of interesting scientific topics. The venue is critical and meetings have taken place in cafés, restaurants and bars, but never in a traditional lecture theatre on campus.have hosted a series of Café Scientifique evenings where researchers have shared their work with the general public. The venue is the Irma Stern Museum and Art Gallery that has the ambience of a café and where the original paintings of this celebrated artist adorn the walls. Past topics have included: rapid response to vaccine development; using microalgae for fine chemicals and feeds; engineering custom orthopaedic implants; novel approaches to diagnosing tuberculosis; making value out of waste water; and using computational fluid mechanics in medicine and aerospace.
This past Tuesday evening featured a presentation entitled “Minding the Gap: Heart Surgery for the Many” and the speaker was Professor Peter Zilla who holds the Christiaan Barnard Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery. He also serves as the chief executive officer of Strait Access Technologies (SAT), a company that spun out from UCT almost three years ago. The problem that SAT has focused on is rheumatic heart disease where a throat infection, if left untreated, can lead to inflammation and irreversible damage to the heart valves.
The disease affects 75 million people – mostly located in the developing world – and claims 1.4 million lives annually. Treatment involves replacement of the heart valve but current devices are extremely sophisticated and require advanced operating theatres and highly trained cardiac surgeons that are in short supply in developing countries. The team at SAT has developed a synthetic heart valve mounted on a stent that can be mass-produced and a deployment device (see image above) designed to deliver the crimped valve without occluding the blood flow in a beating heart. Crucially, there is no need for open heart surgery or a heart-lung machine.
In the best traditions of Café Scientifique, Zilla’s presentation was followed by a series of searching questions in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere.