Can Tiny Robots Revolutionize Eye Surgery?
Last September, Robert MacLaren, an ophthalmologist and professor at Oxford University, plunged a tiny robotic arm into William Beaver’s eye. A membrane had recently contracted on the 70-year-old priest’s retina, pinching it into an uneven shape and causing him to see the world as if reflected in a hall of mirrors.
Using a joystick and a camera feed, MacLaren guided the arm of the Robotic Retinal Dissection Device, or R2D2 for short, through a tiny incision in the eye, before lifting the wrinkled membrane, no more than a hundredth of a millimeter thick, from the retina, and reversing Beaver’s vision problems.
It was the first operation performed inside the human eye using a robot. Since September, five more patients have undergone robot-assisted operations at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital in England, including one in which a virus, used in gene therapy to halt the effects of retinal degeneration, was planted on the retina itself, a procedure only made possible by R2D2’s unprecedented precision.
“My movements were improved and finessed by the robot,” MacLaren says. “I could even let go and the robot would hold everything securely in place.”
In the past decade the use of robots in surgery has become commonplace. Da Vinci, an American-made surgical robot that is used to repair heart valves, among other things, has operated on more than three million patients around the world. Robotic surgery provides numerous benefits, offering surgeons a greater degree of control while simultaneously reducing a patient’s trauma and risk of infection. The market for medical robotic systems will exceed $17 billion by 2020, according to some estimates. But until now surgical robots have been too bulky to be used in certain procedures at small scale (da Vinci, for example, is around the size of an elephant, its bulk necessary to push against the forces of the body wall).
by Simon Parkin