Robots are like politicians – fun to pick on, often seen as a threat to humanity and difficult to compliment. It’s time to do the latter. For the first time ever, tiny robots have been used by surgeons to operate inside a human’s eye and restore sight. Gort would be proud.
It’s almost the world of fairy tales but it’s true. I’m just fortunate that I’m the first to have it.
Reverend Dr. William Beaver, a 70-year-old Associate Priest at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, had a membrane growing on the surface of his retina that distorted his vision. The only treatment for the condition is microscopic surgery to remove the 100th-of-a-millimeter thick membrane without damaging the retina, a dangerous procedure for a human surgeon which would require making cuts only after slowing their pulse and timing their movements between their heart beats. Is Zen eye surgery covered by most medical plans?
Eye surgeons at John Radcliffe Hospital’s Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology decided to join forces with Preceyes BV, a Dutch medical robotics firm. They took 18 months to develop the robot and practice for the landmark surgery. The robot would have to enter and exit the eye through a hole less than one mm in diameter and deal with the eye’s movements during the surgery. Its seven independent computer-controlled motors would be guided by surgeons using joysticks, touchscreens and microscopes to make movements as small as 1000th of a millimeter.
There is no doubt in my mind that we have just witnessed a vision of eye surgery in the future. With a robotic system, we open up a whole new chapter of eye operations that currently cannot be performed.
Professor Robert MacLaren, leader of the surgical team, touts the success of the miniature robot, which restore the central vision to Dr. Beaver’s right eye. With one done, the team and their revolutionary miniature surgical robot now moves into a trial involving 12 patients with eye problems that more severe and will require the robot to perform injections as well as cuts. Once that is possible, the robots can be used for retinal gene therapy – a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa in young people – and age-related macular degeneration.
Maarten Beelen describes what’s coming from Preceyes:
In the future we could see this being used in an office based setting, where only the robot would touch the eye and it would be fully automated, which would improve efficiency and reduce costs.
In other words, an office full of people like Dr. Beaver saying:
I can see!