January 19, 2017


The tiniest surgical robots are revolutionizing eye surgery (Simon Parkin, 1/18/17, MIT Technology Review)

In the past decade the use of robots in surgery has become commonplace. Da Vinci, an American-made surgical robot that is used to repair heart valves, among other things, has operated on more than three million patients around the world. Robotic surgery provides numerous benefits, offering surgeons a greater degree of control while simultaneously reducing a patient's trauma and risk of infection. The market for medical robotic systems will exceed $17 billion by 2020, according to some estimates. But until now surgical robots have been too bulky to be used in certain procedures at small scale (da Vinci, for example, is around the size of an elephant, its bulk necessary to push against the forces of the body wall). 

R2D2, which was developed by Preceyes BV, a Dutch medical robotics firm established by the University of Eindhoven, is not the only robot targeting the human eye. Chris Wagner, head of advanced surgical systems at Cambridge Consultants, has led a team in the development of Axsis--one of the smallest known robots for surgical use, its external body is the size of a can of soda.

"Building a surgical robot that can work on the size scale of the lens of an eye, which is less than 10 millimeters across, is difficult," says Wagner, whose team began work on Axsis last April. For example, the cables that enable the robot to navigate are each 110 microns across, a little over the diameter of a human hair.

Both R2D2, which, according to MacLaren's estimates, will cost around $1 million, and Axsis are prototype robots currently unavailable on the market. Cambridge Consultants hopes that future versions of its Axsis robot will prove affordable for smaller hospitals, thereby lowering the barrier to entry for less experienced robotic surgeons.

"With this system, we're trying to expand the range of procedures that should be considered candidates for robotic technology, in terms of the size of the manipulations and the size of the access," says Wagner. He hopes that Axsis could, for example, be used to operate on cataracts, the most commonly performed surgery in developed countries. Oxford's MacLaren, however, is skeptical of the need for robotic support in this kind of routine eye operation. To meet the demand, "thousands of machines" would have to be manufactured, he says.

And thousands fewer surgeons produced. 

Posted by at January 19, 2017 6:21 AM