From gallbladder procedures to prostate surgery, robots are already mainstays in the operating room. Now, they’re coming for your eyes.
In 2016, scientists from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences started a scientific trial to evaluate the PRECEYES Surgical System, a robot created to carry out surgical treatment on the retina, the surface at the back of the eyeball. On Monday, they released the results of their robot- assisted eye surgery trial in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.
A surgeon utilizes a joystick to control the mobile arm of the PRECEYES system. Doctors can connect various instruments to the arm, and since the system is robotic, it does not suffer from any of the slight tremors that plague even the most steady-handed of humans.
For their trial, the scientists enlisted 12 patients that each required a membrane removed from their retina — a fairly routine treatment, the study authors note. Doctors performed 6 of their surgeries the conventional method, while each of the others underwent a robot-assisted eye surgery.
The surgical treatment begin with a small incision just above the pupil through which the surgeon inserts a flashlight. For the robotic version, the surgeon inserts the robot through a cut less than 1 mm in diameter, a bit below the pupil. It separates the membrane from the retina, then removes the membrane from the eye, exiting through the same hole it entered. In the surgeries performed without the robot, the surgeon does this by hand, using microsurgical instruments while looking through an operating microscope.
All twelve surgeries were successful; in some cases, the robot made the surgeon even more efficient than usual, according to an Oxford press release. In a 2nd phase of the trial, surgeons utilized the robot on 3 patients to dissolve under-retina hemorrhages that could have caused vision loss. Those surgeries were successful, too.
A robot- assisted eye surgery did take about 3 times as long as a conventional one, but trial leader Robert MacLaren told New Scientist that was just because the surgeons were not familiar with the robot and moved slowly out of caution.Now that the researchers have proof that they can utilize PRECEYES for regular procedures, they’re turning their attention to much more difficult surgical treatments — perhaps even ones that are currently impossible.
“Our next step will be to use the robotic surgical device for precise and minimally traumatic delivery of a gene therapy to the retina, which will be another first-in-man achievement and is set to commence in early 2019,” MacLaren stated in the press release.
While physicians can already carry out that operation on patients who aren’t able to see at all, their hands aren’t reliable enough to pinpoint specific spots on the retina for patients who still have some vision.
MacLaren informed NewScientist that PRECEYES may also enable surgeons to directly unblock blood vessels or inject treatments directly into patients’ optic nerves — 2 operations that are currently impossible.
PRECEYES is one of several robot surgeons in development, and while they generally may not work as quickly as their human counterparts, their accuracy will reduce the risk and open new doors to different types of surgery that was never possible before.