Robert MacLaren, Professor of Ophthalmology and Dr. Thomas Edwards, Nuffield Medical Fellow, used the remotely controlled robot to lift a membrane that was 100th of a millimeter thick from the retina at the back of the right eye of the Revd. Dr. William Beaver.
The Robotic Retinal Dissection Device (R2D2) needs to be incredibly focused and precise since it must operate inside the eye through a single hole that is less than 1-mm in diameter and it needs to go in and out of the eye through this same hole during various steps of the procedure, even though the eye may rotate. The robot, which acts like a mechanical hand, is comprised of seven independent computer-controlled motors that produce movements as precise as 1000th of a millimeter in scale.
The purpose of the robotic eye surgeon is to eliminate unwanted tremors in the surgeon’s hand – like the ones that come from a pulse – so that tiny surgical manipulations can be safely carried out within the eye.
In the case of Father Beaver, the first robotic eye operation patient, a membrane growing on the surface of his retina had contracted and pulled it into an uneven shape, causing him to see distorted images. The membrane is about 100th of a millimeter thick and needed to be dissected off the retina without damaging it.
The surgeon controlled the robot with a joystick and touchscreen, continually monitoring the robot’s progress over the course of the entire procedure.
Until now, there has been no robotic device available capable of achieving the three-dimensional precision required to operate inside the human eye, though other robotic surgeons have performed on larger scales like in the abdomen.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we have just witnessed a vision of eye surgery in the future,” said MacLaren. “Current technology with laser scanners and microscopes allows us to monitor retinal diseases at the microscopic level, but the things we see are beyond the physiological limit of what the human hand can operate on. With a robotic system, we open up a whole new chapter of eye operations that currently cannot be performed.”
According to the Oxford team, this giant leap will assist in the development of new treatments for blindness, such as gene therapy and stem cells, which need to be inserted under the retina with a high degree of precision.