Steady hands — a robot just helped doctors perform a novel eye surgery

Ommetaphobics, look away. If the idea of something touching your eye makes you a bit queasy, you certainly won’t like a medical innovation involving a robot, a needle, and your retinal vein. All the same, it’s an important development in the field of ophthalmology.

Belgian eye surgeons became the first to use a surgical robot to operate on a patient with retinal vein occlusion this week, with the robot employing a truly minuscule needle to do its work. Measuring barely 0.03 millimeters, the needle was used to inject a clot-dissolving drug into the patient’s retinal vein. Both the robot and the needle were made specifically for the surgery.

If the proof is in the pudding, consider this operation dessert. The process proved that it is indeed possible to dissolve a blood clot directly from the retinal vein — that is, if you have a robot to help you. This could lead to new treatments for retinal vein occlusion, which if left untreated, can lead to blindness. Currently, treatment for the disorder requires monthly injections in the eye, and while this reduces the effects of the blood clot, it does not completely remove the clot. This new injection method, however, changes the game.

The introduction of robots to the treatment has allowed for medicine to go where it has never gone before. Even the steadiest of human hands would not be able to hold such a small needle still for an extended period of time. A robot, however, can. While a surgeon is responsible for guiding the hair-thin needle into the vein, the robot eliminates any vibrations, which increases precision by a factor of 10. Once the retinal vein has been reached, the doctor can stabilize both the needle and the eye, allowing for the safe injection of the thrombolytic drug.

Not only is this treatment the first to truly address the problem at its core, it’s also significantly more affordable than previous alternatives. While current treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, ” … you’re only treating the side effects and that there is little more you can do than avoid reducing eyesight,” said Professor Peter Stalmans, eye surgeon at University Hospitals Leuven. “This is a high price tag, The robotic device finally enables us to treat the cause of the thrombosis in the retina. I look forward to what is next: if we succeed, we will literally be able to make blind people see again.”