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R2D2 Performs Robotic Eye Surgery

R2D2 Performs Robotic Eye Surgery

What does R2D2 have to do with eye surgery?

If you answered ‘nothing’ to the above question, then I am sorry to say that you would have lost the bet. But I am not really very sorry, and here’s why.


Robots are revolutionizing surgeries in general and eye surgeries in particular.

I admit that the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear R2D2 is the beloved robot character in the most epic space opera franchise created by George Lucas,  "The Star Wars Saga."

However, I am referring to the new age R2D2 robots - Robotic Retinal Dissection Device, or R2D2 for short. These robots are now enabling eye surgeons to rely on more than just their natural talent and finely honed skills.

Robots like R2D2 are currently helping eye surgeons push past frontiers in surgeries where a high degree of rigor is required. Eye surgeries require exact incisions and decisive movements of the utmost precision and this is where R2D2 robots have been breaking down barriers in the limits of human capabilities.

Imagine using a surgical version of a joystick and a tiny camera feed to make microscopic incisions in the retina, then lifting a wrinkled membrane from the incised retina, a membrane that measures no thicker than a fraction of a millimeter. All this in a quest to reverse vision problems.

This is exactly what R2D2 made possible. One such robotic eye surgery was conducted recently by Robert MacLaren, an ophthalmologist and professor at Oxford University. And not just on any patient. On a 70 year old priest.

This was the first of five such robotic eye surgeries that have taken place at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital in England since last September. In one of the later ophthalmic surgeries, R2D2 even used gene therapy principles to plant a virus on the retinal membrane itself, thus halting the effects of future degradation of the retina.

Dr. MacLaren, a renowned eye surgeon is one of the first to acknowledge the very specific way that R2D2 enables eye surgeons like him to improve their technique.

Using robots to perform surgeries is quite common these days. One of the more prolific robots and better known one is the American-made Da Vinci surgical robot. This robot has performed more than three million surgical operations. While most of these surgeries have been about repairing heart valves, one of the more sought after routine surgical operations, Da Vinci has also performed other similar types of operations.

The main benefit in using surgical robots like Da Vinci is the greater degree of control and precision that such robots provide already skilled surgeons, thus reducing infection and trauma risk on a patient's recovery path. The market for the demand for such robot assisted surgeries is expected to reach $17 billion by 2020 and robot assisted surgeries by itself are not that rare these days.

However so far the sheer size, bulk and space required for such robots has been a restraining factor. The well reputed Da Vinci for example is extremely bulky and takes up far too much space.

R2D2 though exceptional in its concept and implementation is not unique. R2D2 was created by the Dutch firm Preceyes BV, backed by the University of Eindhoven. One of the other players in this innovative field is Cambridge Consultants who developed one of the smallest known surgical robots. Axsis is a tiny surgical robot that can arguably fit quite comfortably inside an ordinary soda can.

Chris Wagner, the head of Advanced Surgical Systems at Cambridge Consultants has openly discussed the difficulty of developing robots that have to work accurately on breadths equivalent to those of a human hair. Though mind boggling, the surgical implications of this in the future are fascinating. But the challenge is not just in the technical constraints but also the space restraints.

Both these robots - R2D2 and Axsis are prototypes and are not yet widely available in the open market. Currently the price tag for such robots can easily top the 1 million mark, clearly putting it out of range for hospitals and clinics with smaller budgets. Cambridge Consultants hope to change this by developing a more affordable version of Axsis.

Chris Wagner hopes to be able to widen the current options of surgical operational procedures to include cataract operations, which is currently the most widely performed operation in the developed world. Oxford’s MacLaren is pursuing a different plan. He feels that routine surgeries are not the best pre-existing conditions for expanding wider use of robotic surgeries. He is of the opinion that this would mean thousands of such robots need to be manufactured, to satisfy the sheer demands of the market. He does however agree with Wagner on the fact that robots are indeed making it possible for surgeons to explore medical territories that were till now more science fiction than reality.

One such frontier is that robotic technology is now making it possible for surgeons to be able to pursue surgical paths even underneath the surface of the retina, and thus directly interact with blood vessels in the eye with minimum local trauma. This can not only improve precision and technical capacity of eye surgeons but it will also have a direct and positive affect on the quality of patient’s care.

Two things we can count on robots to have more of are precision and stability. They come more naturally to a robot than say a human who requires more intensive and exhaustive training even when humans have a natural aptitude for such procedures.

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