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This Robot Could Keep 16.4 Million People From Going Blind

A retinal vein occlusion, or RVO, can be serious for those suffering from it. It happens when there’s a blood clot in a retinal vein. This can lead to severely reduced eyesight or, in some cases, complete blindness in the affected eye.

Eye surgeons at University Hospitals Leuven have been the first to use a surgical robot to operate on a patient with retinal vein occlusion. Image credit: KU Leuven

Worldwide, there are about 16.4 million people who live with a blocked retinal vein that is directly caused by thrombosis – or a blood clot – in the blood vessel.

Until recently, treatments for such a thing were limited. Health professionals are not able to remove the blood clot, and instead, they can only offer temporary treatment. Those suffering from this issue must receive monthly injections in the eye, which only reduces the side effects of thrombosis and prevents progression — it’s no cure.

But a recent operation — with the help of a unique surgical eye robot — shows that it’s possible to safely dissolve clots.

The Surgical Eye Robot That Is Saving Eyesight

Surgeons from the University Hospitals Leuven in Belgium used the help of a surgical robot — specifically designed for such a procedure — to operate on a patient suffering from a retinal vein occlusion.

This procedure, called retinal vein cannulation (RVC), is absolutely revolutionary. Retinal veins are so tiny — about a tenth of a millimeter thick — it’s physically impossible for a surgeon to manually inject a drug. First, they must insert the needle directly into the vein, then they must hold it perfectly still for up to ten minutes. Without that precision and stability, the procedure could damage the vein or parts of the retina.

The robot inserts an attached needle into the affected vein and then injects a thrombolytic drug, which helps dissolve the clot. The needle is a mere 0.03 millimeters (or 30 microns) thick, three times as a thin as a strand of hair.  In comparison, surgical laser fibers, which have been used for invasive optical surgeries since the 80s, range from 273 microns up to 1200 microns wide.

The robot can not only accurately insert the tiny needle, but also hold it completely still for as long as necessary.

Tech Advances Include Team Work

Perhaps even more interesting, is how the robot is used. Rather than employ the preferred method of remote controls such as a joystick, the surgeon and robot work together as a team. This is called co-manipulation, and many medical procedures use this method.

A skilled surgeon guides the needle into the retinal vein, and the robot reduces vibration of the needle and excess movement to ensure precision. As soon as the needle is inserted, the robot can be locked, holding the setup completely immobile. This allows the surgeon to inject the drug in a controlled manner — over time — to dissolve the blood clot and remedy the ailment.

It could potentially help hundreds, if not thousands, of people who may otherwise go blind without treatment.

The Robot Who Makes It Happen

The robot was developed after more than seven years of research between engineers and ophthalmologists at KU Leuven and University Hospitals Leuven. But it’s not ready to be used on a wide scale just yet. They are testing the device and procedure currently, using a phase-based system.

Phase 1 of the trial involved actually using the robot and needle to inject and dissolve the blood clot. Phase 2 is currently happening, during which physicians will continue to study the clinical effects of the procedure including any side effects that may occur.

Believe it or not, it’s not the only robot of its kind. A professor at Oxford University used a similar robot to repair a damaged retina. It just goes to show the kinds of things we can do with modern technology that may ultimately open the doors for health professionals and those they treat.

Without the robot in question, doctors would never be able to remedy a patient’s thrombosis. Now, curing an impossible eye issue is on the horizon.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes

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