New bone and tissue bank a boon for transplants in SA

For years, South Africans in need of tissue and bone transplants have largely had to depend on overseas donors and technology to have restorative treatments.  But now they will have this specialised treatment right on their doorstep, thanks to the launch of a new state-of-the-art tissue engineering facility which opened in Cape Town.

The opening of Vitanova connective tissue bank by Bone SA, a non-profit organisation which distributes bone and tissue products to the medical fraternity, was officiated by the country’s health director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi and transplant experts. It is the third tissue bank in the country and the first for the Western Cape. Its aim is to address the need for donated tissue and tissue products in SA.

Speaking at the launch, Buthelezi described the latest investment into the biomedical sector and tissue engineering technology as an important step in cementing SA’s reputation as a leader in science, research and health innovation. Despite focusing on work to minimise the Covid-19 impact on South Africans, Buthelezi commended scientists and researchers who remained at the forefront on other non-Covid-19 research and innovation simultaneously.

“SA has for many decades also been at the forefront of other important work to improve the health and wellbeing of our citizens. The tissue bank promises to build on this reputation in the tissue engineering field. This site will also be a place of learning and sharing information. I have no doubt that it will be a place of research, innovation and excellence which will help improve the lives and the health of thousands of people of SA,” said Buthelezi.

“It is vital to address the major public health challenges presented by the need for organs and tissue, specifically on skin and corneas around the world. We’ve seen massive strides in the field of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Today, we are able to use the implanted products made of fragments of bone to stimulate, broken and damaged (tissue) which is remarkable in itself,” he said.

“But there’s no doubt that what would become possible in the field of tissue engineering in the future is beyond what any one of us is even able to imagine. Right now, we are aware that scientists around the world are developing ways to 3D printed tissues from people’s own cells. Within our lifetimes, we are likely to see scientists reach the point where they can create three different organs for people who need them to reduce the need of relying on a very small pool of donors,” said Buthelezi

Apart from increasing the availability of life-enhancing tissue products, increasing the awareness of tissue donation, as well as spearheading an educational drive around the importance of tissue donation, a key part of the initiative is also to increase the number of registered organ and tissue donors in SA.

By combining cutting-edge technology with internationally recognised expertise, Vitanova seeks to impact the lives of patients across the country in need of tissue transplant and implantation, and will serve as recovery and processing facility for one and tissue donations in all the country’s coastal provinces. Through innovative processes, the facility will use these precious donor materials to create products that can heal and improve the quality of life of thousands of South Africans.

Prof Petro Terblanche, chairperson of the board of Bone SA, said the skills, knowledge and expertise brought together under the Bone SA and Vitanova umbrella are of a global standard.

“We have the potential here to noticeably improve our approach to tissue donation in terms of availability of products,” said Terblanche.

Vitanova will also act as a training facility for registrars and nurses, and host other training and events on site. It will also be an access point to industry partners and the public looking to connect with Bone SA.

“The opening of Vitanova is a significant step towards improving education and increasing awareness around the importance of tissue donation in SA,” Terblanche added.

Dr David Thomson, a transplant surgeon and intensivist at Groote Schuur Hospital and the president of the SA Transplant Society, said despite efforts in making transplant advances in the country’s select transplant centres, the country is still not offering the gift of transplantation effectively.

“Numbers of organ and tissue donors have sadly been dropping for years. We desperately need to create a national culture of donation across SA, and the establishment of another tissue bank is a great step in that direction. Ultimately, we need to get to the point of our hospital systems monitoring deaths and end of life care practices and donation activity as a part of the national core standards,” said Thomson.

Thomson said the country’s health system needs to ensure that it has all the right people and systems in place and the capacity to offer a system “where we routinely and compassionately explore different transplant options, and the NGO sector needs to be part of such health advancements”.

“We always talk about public private partnerships, but I think we need to talk about non-profit company partnerships and non-profit organisations because this is where we can develop the trust from society because we don’t get donations if we don’t foster trust across society and as professional societies. Organ donation would be a very low hanging fruit to show what could be achieved by good governance,” he said.

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