Back in 1966, a science fiction movie called Fantastic Voyage wowed audiences as a submarine was miniaturized and injected into a human vein. The concept seemed unbelievable, like something you’d see in a children’s cartoon, which we actually did see in the popular kids’ show Magic School Bus. But 45 years after the film came out, it appears that something similar is actually happening in the world of nanorobotics that could change the way eye surgery is performed in the future.
A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich led by Brad Nelson, professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, have created a microbot tiny enough to be injected into an eye without the need for any anesthetic. Nelson said in a video interview (shown below) that the first applications are in targeted delivery. Diseases like age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in older people, or retinal vein occlusions, can be treated with the microbot by delivering the drugs to a specific location on the retina.
Right now, the most common treatment for macular degeneration is a drug that is injected into the eye. It tends to diffuse quickly through the retina, so it requires regular injections. The robot, on the other hand, can stay in the eye for months, so it could provide a lengthier and more-targeted drug release. The robot can also position a biodegradable drug capsule in the eye and then be removed with a magnetic needle.
Basically a tiny magnet, the microbot is controlled by an electromagnetic field outside of the eye. Nelson said they have to be very precise about controlling the fields and the currents through their electric magnets. This has been a challenge that the team has been able to overcome in the past couple of years.
The research has been done on synthetic eyes, or the eyes of dead animals so far. The eye in the video below is that of a pig. The team says it will be moving soon to the eyes of living animals, which will be followed by human trials.
Nelson said that if they can make it small enough to fit in a 23 gauge needle, it can be injected into the eye with just topical anesthetic or none at all, and it doesn’t even need a suture. Though the microbot still has a ways to go before it can be used regularly on (live) humans, the tiny size of the robots could bring forth a new type of non-invasive surgery.