Cardiovascular Research Unit Staff
Cardiovascular Research Unit Director
Professor Peter Zilla
Professor Zilla obtained his academic qualifications from the Universities of Vienna (Austria), Zurich (Switzerland) and Cape Town (South Africa) and his clinical qualifications from the Austrian Physician’s Board and the College of Medicine of South Africa.
After graduating as “Doctor of Medicine” at the University of Vienna, Austria in 1980 he obtained a DMed. degree from the University of Zurich, Switzerland in 1983, a PD degree (PhD equivalent) from the University of Vienna and another PhD degree from the University of Cape Town in 1990.
Clinically, he was registered as a specialist general surgeon with the Austrian Physicians Board in 1988 followed by registration as a specialist vascular surgeon. After passing the fellowship examinations of the South African College of Medicine he was registered as a specialist cardiothoracic surgeon in SA in 1992.
As Professor Zilla’s aspiration was an academic career as a clinician scientist, he spent his initial three post-graduate years in basic science. After a year at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Vienna he became a lecturer at the Neurobiology Division of the Anatomical Institute of the University of Zurich, Switzerland from 1981 to 1983. Upon return to the University Hospital Vienna he obtained a major grant allowing him to establish his own research laboratories. In 1987 he followed an invitation from the Chris Barnard Department in Cape Town to set up a tissue engineering laboratory and perform preclinical trials with his method of ‘in vitro endothelialization’. After successfully demonstrating its clinical feasibility he became part of the tissue engineering program at the University of Zurich from 1989. When new operating theatres incorporating cell culture laboratories were custom built for his method of in vitro endothelialization in Austria he commenced a clinical program there of which he remained the scientific advisor for almost two decades. With the undertaking of a major American corporation to fund his plans for a similar research program for developing countries, he established the Cardiovascular Research Unit at the University of Cape Town in 1992, director of which he continues to be. With a staged investment of more than 70 million Rand he built a modern research institution with its own electron microscopes, state of the art experimental surgery, polymer, tissue culture and computer modeling laboratories.
Uniting cardiology, lipidology and cardiac surgical research under one umbrella, he was instrumental in founding the ‘Cape Heart Centre’ at UCT and the ‘MRC Cape Heart Group’ in 1996 and became its director in 1999.
Professor Zilla’s surgical career commenced with his residency at the University Hospital Vienna from 1983 to 1989, 18 months of which he spent at the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town. His subsequent surgical positions were as Senior Registrar at the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery, University Hospital Zurich (1989-1990), Consultant in the Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Hospital Wels (1990-1992) and Senior Consultant in Cardiothoracic Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital from 1992. After his appointment as Associate Professor in 1994, Principal Specialist in 1996 and Full Professor in 1999, he became Head of the Chris Barnard Division in 2000, in charge of cardiothoracic surgery at Groote Schuur and Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Under his leadership the Department expanded both their staff and their operations after a steep decline in adult cardiac cases in the second half of the 1990s. Over the past 10 years, the Department became a leading training institution for cardiothoracic surgeons from other African countries.
Prof. Zilla was instrumental in initiating the establishment of the UCT Private Academic Hospital and was successful in using his personal contacts with Rhoen Klinikum in Germany to invite them to found a ‘Rhoen Klinikum Cape Town’ together with UCT, which soon materialized.
His main research foci have been in the fields of tissue engineering and prosthetic cardiovascular implants. Pioneering tissue engineering since 1983, he developed a method of culturing the patient’s own endothelial cells on prosthetic surfaces. Today, after an international multi-centre study in the 1990s and with almost 500 patient-implants, the program is a show-case for clinical tissue engineering. Reflecting the wide impact of this aspect of his work, it has been cited almost 1500 times in the literature and he continues to give plenary talks at major conferences on the subject.
Professor Zilla’s second focus, improving heart valve prostheses for the young patients of developing countries, has led to a reduction of the prosthetic degeneration process by 97%. His other biotechnology development, utilizing shape-memory meshes for the protection of vein grafts, has successfully completed a multi-centre study in SA, Asia, Australia and Europe and has been introduced into clinical practice. His engagement in the field of rheumatic heart disease has additionally awarded him international recognition as a plenary speaker.
Realising the need for ‘home grown’ solutions to the health debacle of up to 70 million largely untreated patients with rheumatic heart disease in the Developing World, Professor Zilla co-founded a University of Cape Town Start-Up Company in 2008 under the name of ‘Strait Access Technologies’ (SAT). With an initial capital of 12 million rand from the South African Government’s ‘Technology Innovation Agency” (TIA) and 51 million rand from the South African Investment Group ‘BidVest’ (almost 5 million Euros), SAT embarked on an ambitious pursuit of securing its niche position in trans-catheter heart valve devices and their deployment systems through innovative concepts. As a result, SAT has not only secured key patents for enabling technologies that allow the precise, slow and non-intrusive deployment of the entire spectrum of SAT’s uniquely designed and IP protected trans-catheter heart valve devices, but is also ahead of schedule in its product developments, having already conducted initial animal trials successfully proving the design concepts.
Professor Zilla is author of 185 peer reviewed full papers and patents (104 times first author or corresponding author) having been cited >5,400 times with a total of 420 impact points and an H-factor of 36 (i10 Factor 91). Apart from holding 33 US/PCT patents (23 issued, 8 published and 2 filed) he is the editor of 5 books and has authored 24 book chapters. He obtained international academic and industry grants of almost 80 million rand. For his research he has been awarded the Theodor Billroth Award (Austrian Surg Soc); Sigma Tau Award (Intern. Union of Angiology); Alexis Carrel Award (German Soc Vasc Surg); Goetz Award (SA Cardiac Soc); Eiselsberg Award (Austrian Physicians Assoc) and Alain Carpentier Award (Int. Soc. Heart Valve Dis). He was the organizer of 5 major international conferences in 4 different countries; is a member and executive council member of 10 international societies; was president of ISACB from 1994-98; is a regular reviewer of the 18 top journals in his field and is on the editorial board of 3 major international journals and Associate Editor of ‘Biomaterials’ (IF 8).
Cardiovascular Research Unit Deputy Director
Dr Paul Human
Dr Paul Human obtained his academic qualifications from the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town (South Africa). After obtaining the B.Sc. degree at the University of Stellenbosch (Biochemistry and Microbiology majors) in 1982 he continued his studies in Biochemistry, achieving the B.Sc.(Hons) (1983) and M.Sc. (cum laude) (1986) degrees from the same University. After a brief two-month exchange programme at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Rehovot, Israel) in the Membrane Research Department, he subsequently joined the Chris Barnard Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Cape Town/Groote Schuur Hospital under Professor Bruno Reichart. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in Cardiothoracic Surgery from the University of Cape Town in 2001.
Dr Human’s research included working closely with the Chris Barnard Division’s Professor David Cooper in the field of cardiac xenotransplantation and Dr Dimitri Novitsky in the field of transplant donor hormonal management. In the former, his research concentrated on the reduction of circulating preformed natural antibody known to result in hyperacute rejection of transplanted organs. He has also conducted extensive research into crystalloid solutions for long-term donor organ preservation, particularly heart and lung, also subsequently focusing on short-term cardioplegic solutions.
In his capacity as head of Pathobiology Research in the Cardiovascular Research Unit, he concentrated on the phenomenon of acute dystrophic calcification of heart valve prostheses, a problem significantly limiting their use in children. He also managed and was involved in the production of both fresh and cryopreserved homograft valves which were made available for clinical use, both locally, nationally and internationally. His Ph.D., for which he received the Bronte Stewart research prize, examined the host immune response associated with heart valve bioprostheses. At a time when few, if any, scientists supported the notion of an immune driven mechanism of bioprosthesis mineralization, he provided tantalizing evidence of such a process and this concept is more widely accepted currently.
This bioprosthetic valve research represented a significant part of the Division’s two-decade contract with a major multinational medical device company. Subsequent to the valve related work, Dr Human also headed similarly funded research geared to better understand the relative contributions of insulin resistance versus obesity in the generation of coronary artery restenosis and to evaluate the potential for protein drug immunogenicity due to the development of drug aggregates associated with pump delivery and their capability of breaking tolerance.
Dr Human has also been responsible for vetting and spearheading the statistical analyses of both clinical and research papers produced within the Division. This includes propensity score matching of patients included in retrospective studies which has greatly facilitated the Division’s ability to provide statistically sound analyses and provide important insight into heart disease in the indigent patient. Central to this is his development of four core intelligent clinical patient management relational databases for adult cardiac and adult thoracic (Groote Schuur Hospital) and for paediatric cardiac and paediatric cardiology (Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital) patients.
He has served for extended periods on both the University of Cape Town’s Department of Surgery Research Committee and on the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Animal Ethics Committee, the latter as both Co-Chairman and Chairman.
Dr Human is author of 88 peer reviewed full papers and patents having been cited 1,924 times with an H-index of 25 and an i10 index of 39. He has contributed to four books in the field.
Head of Biomaterials Research
Associate Professor Deon Bezuidenhout
Assoc. Prof. Bezuidenhout holds B.Sc. (Chemistry and Applied Mathematics), B.Sc. (Hons.), M.Sc and Ph.D. (Polymer Science) degrees from the University of Stellenbosch, and specializes in the development of biomaterial scaffolds and biomimetic matrices for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications. As Associate Professor in the Christiaan Barnard Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, University of Cape Town, and Head of Biomaterials Sciences at the Division’s Cardiovascular Research Unit (CRU), he teaches at both undergraduate and graduate levels and has 18 years experience with the design, synthesis, modification, and processing of polymeric materials and bioprosthetic tissues for use in cardiovascular and related prostheses and therapies. He is also a founder member and Technical Director of Strait Access Technologies, a university spin-off company, aimed at the development of heart valve therapies for the developing world.
He has headed and supported large research projects on device development in collaboration with local and multinational device companies, and has set up laboratories, methodologies and analytical techniques for development and evaluation of a variety of cardiovascular devices. Past and current projects include the development of foamed polyurethane scaffolds for the successful transmural endothelialisation of vascular grafts, improved approaches to the fixation of bioprosthetic tissues, devices suitable for the transplantation of therapeutic cells, external vein stents to control intimal hyperplasia, drug eluting coronary stents, injectable hydrogels with controlled drug release, and transcatheter heart valves and delivery devices.
Prof. Bezuidenhout is well published (42 papers; citations = 1630; h-index = 20; i10-index =30), has written 8 invited book and encyclopedia chapters, is inventor on 17 issued patents and a further 10 pending international applications on vascular grafts, biomimetic matrices, vein stents, transcatheter aortic valves and non-occlusive deployment devices for their delivery, is editorial board member/associate editor of a number of journals, and member of 7 local and international academic societies related in his field of specialization. Institutional and professional duties include serving on the Research Advisory Panel for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Review Panel for National Research Foundation programs. He is author of more than 100 conference presentations at local and international conferences and has recently presented an invited talk to the US National Academy of Sciences Roundtable on Biomedical Engineering Materials and Applications on Biomaterials for Globally Available Healthcare.
Head of Regenerative Medicine Research
Associate Professor Neil Davies
Dr Davies obtained his academic qualifications from the University of Cape Town (South Africa).
After graduating with a PhD (Biochemistry) entitled Investigations of 167 base pair core particle structure and the role of ubiquitin in core particle structure in 1993, he was a post-doctoral fellow in the Medical Biochemistry Department at the University of Cape Town for 2 years followed by a further 3 year fellowship in the Chemical Pathology Department at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom). These fellowships were focused on LDL receptors in the former and nuclear receptors in the latter. He then joined the Cardiovascular Research Unit at the University of Cape Town in 1999.
His main research focus as head of the Unit’s Regenerative Medicine group has particular reference to delivery of biomaterials and stem cells to infarcted hearts. Integral to this focus is the development of novel therapeutic angiogenesis strategies and investigations into the manipulation of cellular invasion through the engineering of bioactive smart hydrogels. His laboratory was the first to show that reduction in pathological remodeling of an infarcted heart could be achieved through the cardiac injection of synthetic biomaterials. Another first was the recent demonstration that cell type specific invasion of hydrogels could be realized through manipulation of protease specific hydrogel crosslinkers. Other notable findings have been the discernment of an optimal dosage of VEGF, a key angiogenesis regulator, for sustained vascular ingrowth and cell specific control of migration speed via utilization of combinations of cell adhesive peptides.
The present focus on stem cell delivery is a strongly collaborative project with Prof Max Gnecchi, University of Pavia, Italy, a world leader in the field of stem cell transplantation. Here the synergy between a variety of novel hydrogels, developed in collaboration with his colleague Prof Deon Bezuidenhout, with different preparations of mesenchymal stem cells are investigated for their potential as therapies for myocardial infarction induced heart failure. He also has a strong interest in optimizing hydrogel delivery to infarcted hearts through the development of computer models and this work is carried out with his colleague Prof Thomas Franz. Most recently, the utility of smart hydrogels as sustained release depots for RNA interference is being assessed in a collaborative project with Prof Mauro Giacca, ICGEB, Trieste, Italy. The delivery of RNA interference agents is presently a major constraint on the translation to the clinic of this therapeutic approach to a wide range of pathologies.
Dr Davies is author of 34 peer reviewed full papers and patents (15 times first author or corresponding author) having been cited 1000 times with a total of 125 impact points and an H-factor of 13 (G-index 30). He has obtained international academic and industry grants of more than 10 million Rand. He is a regular reviewer of the 12 top journals in his field and is on the editorial board of Journal of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering. He is currently funded by the National Research Foundation (South Africa), Medical Research Council (South Africa) and the International Centre For Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Helen Ilsley graduated from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology specialising in Histology with a sub-specialty in Electron Microscopy.
Helen initially worked in the Anatomical Pathology Department at Groote Schuur Hospital, transferring after two years to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital to gain expertise in laboratory techniques associated with muscle and renal biopsies. After several years she joined the Histology and Electron Microscopy Department of the National Health Laboratory. During this time she was invited to present her work in Kenya and Nigeria at the African Renal Pathology Congress, running practical workshops on the techniques used in the laboratory for renal biopsies.
Helen has always had a keen interest in research and it was therefore a natural progression that she joined the Cardiovascular Research Unit in 2005. She has brought back essential knowledge during visits overseas regarding a neutralising cell-based assay (Medtronic, Minneapolis, MN) and a process of tissue decellularisation applied to pericardium (Clemson University, SC).
Helen loves problem solving and learning new techniques and enjoys sharing her knowledge: “I feel that the team is filled with enthusiasm and energy and it is great to be a small part of something that will ultimately help the people in Africa”.
Senior Scientific Officer
Anel Oosthuysen obtained her M. Eng. (Chemical) from the University of Stellenbosch in 1999. She joined the Biomaterials Group (formerly Polymer Group) of the Cardiovascular Research Unit and currently holds a position as Senior Scientific Officer.
Her research fields include the use of both animal tissue and synthetic materials for use as bioprosthetic scaffolds, and controlled drug release from hydrogels.
Aliza Janse van Rensburg
Aliza Janse van Rensburg is currently a final year master's student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Cape Town. At the end of 2012 she graduated with a four-year degree in Chemical/Process Engineering at Stellenbosch University. During this time she gained experience in bioprocess engineering, hydrometallurgy, phase equilibrium, polymer processing, pyrometallurgy, ore dressing, as well as water treatment. She was invited to become a member of The Golden Key International Honour Society. Aliza is currently busy with her dissertation project, titled Heparinoid Hydrogels for Cardiovascular Tissue Regeneration. She has performed good work on injectable heparinized hydrogels for growth factor release which has been exemplified at various local events. She was accepted as a speaker at the Surgical Research Day of Grootte Schuur Hospital; she attended the POLYCHAR 22 World Forum on Advanced Materials in Stellenbosch, where she received the IUPAC Poster Prize from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry; Aliza also presented at the 2014 Expo of Research Posters during the UCT Postgraduate Research Week and received a second prize from McKinsey & Company. She is a technical assistant on 24 hour standby for Lodox Systems, who produce and manage low dose X-ray scanners which are time-saving, safe, full-body digital X-ray imaging devices. She is also an academic tutor at Teach Me 2 where se tutors Grades 6-12 Mathematics, Science and Biology. During undergraduate she worked as an intern at Mpact in the Chemical and Mineral Process Industries in order to gain exposure to the large-scale equipment used in industry.
Judy Brooks joined the Cardiovascular Research Unit in 2016.