Prof. 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 Physican’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 a separate 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 the 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 2 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 mio 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 of which he spent 18 months 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 Department in 2000, in charge of cardiothoracic surgery at Groote Schuur and Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Under his leadership the Department expanded both staff and operations-wise 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.
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. 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 mio Rand from the South African Government’s ‘Technology Innovation Agency” (TIA) and 18 mio Rand from the South African Investment Group ‘BidVest’ 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, expecting first-in-man studies in several European Centres in the first half of 2017.
Professor Zilla is author of 185 peer reviewed full papers and patents (104 times first author or corresponding author) having been cited 6,600 times with a total of >500 impact points and an H-index of 40 (RG 40). Apart from >40 filed or issued US/PCT patents 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 was Associate Editor of ‘Biomaterials’ (IF 8).