The Force Is Strong With This One: This R2D2 Robot Makes Life Easier For Eye Surgeons


Robots have come a long way. Once "dumb" machines unable to walk a straight path, now they're in factories, in our phones — speaking to us, learning about us. We've seen a robot designed to shoot guns, and now, there's a robot that has made its way inside the operating room helping doctors do a complex surgery.

Surgeons have used a robot to operate inside the human eye — greatly improving the precision and accuracy of a delicate surgery, which entailed removing fine membrane growth on the patient's retina.

The surgery was part of a trial, in which robots rivaled human counterparts in carrying out a delicate surgery involving the eye. The surgeons got six patients to perform the procedure on, and the robots got the same number of patients.

"This is the first time robot-assisted surgery has been performed in the eye," said Marco Bellini, a research coordinator for Medical Sciences Division of Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. "The robotic device is able to perform surgical procedures through the conventional surgical portholes used for retinal 'keyhole' surgery."

Meet R2D2, The Eye Surgeon

The robot, Robotic Retinal Dissection Device, or R2D2, operates from a single hole in the patient's eye, traveling in and out to make incisions, even as the eye moves. Preceyes BV created little R2D2, which debuted last year at Oxford University's Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology. Professor Robert MacLaren first used R2D2 to perform a surgery, in which robot was remotely controlled to remove a membrane — just 0.01 mm thick — from a patient's retina. The operation was a success, and the patient's vision returned to normal.

To get a sense of how experimental the surgery was, imagine that you're controlling a knife inside the retina with nothing more than a joystick and a touchscreen for controls. One wrong move and the operation goes awry.

Robots are particularly useful in invasive surgeries involving very tiny areas. In this case, it's the eye. Even the slightest tremor or tick of the hand can have awful consequences — it could damage the nerves or the retina itself. A robot doesn't quiver, shake, or make involuntary movements. Put simply, its movements aren't affected by human error. It only follows what it's programmed to do.

R2D2 has seven independent computer-controlled motors for navigation. While it's far from error-free, R2D2 completely removes human frailty in the equation, and it's able to perform moves human surgeons might struggle with.

Stage 2 Of The Eye Surgery Trial And Beyond

Right now, doctors are preparing for stage 2 of the trial, in which R2D2 will be tasked to place a fine needle under the retina and inject it with fluid. All participants of forthcoming surgeries will only be selected if they volunteer, with them fully aware that a robot is involved.

But MacLaren is confident in the R2D2 and its inevitable impact on eye surgery.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we have just witnessed a vision of eye surgery in the future."

He also noted that R2D2 will help evolve new surgical procedures to treat blindness.

"This will help to develop novel surgical treatments for blindness, such as gene therapy and stem cells, which need to be inserted under the retina with a high degree of precision."

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