A ROBOT has been used by surgeons to operate inside the eye and restore vision in a world first.

A team at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital used the robot, controlled by a joystick, to remove a membrane one hundredth of a millimetre thick from the retina at the back of the right eye of a patient.

Surgeons hope the procedure will pave the way for more complex eye surgery than is currently possible with the human hand.

The Reverend Dr William Beaver, 70, an Associate Priest at St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford was the first patient to undergo the experimental procedure.

A membrane growing on the surface of his retina had contracted and pulled it into an uneven shape leading to a distorted image, like looking in a hall of mirrors at a fairground.

The membrane is about one hundredth of a millimetre thick and needed to be dissected off the retina without damaging it.

The surgeon uses a joystick and touchscreen outside the eye to control the robot, developed by Dutch medical firm Preceyes BV, while monitoring its progress through the operating microscope.

Professor Robert MacLaren said current technology with laser scanners and microscopes allowed them to monitor retinal diseases at the microscopic level but the things seen were beyond the limit of what the human hand could operate on.

“With a robotic system, we open up a whole new chapter of eye operations that currently cannot be performed,” he said.

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

Reverend Dr William Beaver

Trial patient Reverend Dr William Beaver. Picture credit: University of Oxford

This will help 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.”

Father Beaver said the surgery had helped restore his sight.

“My sight is coming back. I am delighted that my surgery went so well and I feel honoured to be part of this pioneering research project,” he said.

The current robotic eye surgery trial, the Robotic Retinal Dissection Device (R2D2) trial, will involve 12 patients, including Father Beaver, in total and involves operations with increasing complexity.

The trial is sponsored by the University of Oxford and funded by the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre with support from Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital.

Additional funding was provided by Zizoz, a Dutch charity for patients with choroideremia, a genetic form of blindness.

Picture credit: University of Oxford