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The tiny robot that can operate inside your eye

posted 11 Apr 2011, 07:15 by Mpelembe   [ updated 11 Apr 2011, 07:16 ]

Researchers in Switzerland are perfecting a robot small enough to be injected into your eye without anaesthetic. The team say their device could carry drugs to the exact position they are needed or even carry out minor operations.

In 1966, the science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage saw a submarine miniaturised and injected into a person's bloodstream. 45 years later, a team from Switzerland are making it sound not so far fetched.

The researchers have developed a robot so small it can be injected into the eye, without anaesthetic, to deliver drugs or perform retinal surgery.

Brad Nelson, professor of robotics and intelligent systems at ETH Zurich, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said the size of their devices could result in novel non-invasive treatments.

"If we can make it small enough to fit in a 23 gauge needle it can actually be injected into the eye with just topical anaesthetic or even no anaesthetic and it doesn't also require a suture," he said.

The device is essentially a magnet, controlled by an external electro-magnetic field -- akin to the conjurers trick of moving an metal object with a magnet held underneath a table but much more sophisticated.

"It requires that we very precisely control the fields and the currents through our electro-magnets and being able to do that and do that in a stable, controlled fashion has been a challenge," said Nelson.

The development could see micro-robots being used to treat a number of eye conditions, either delivering drugs or re-attaching retinas.

"Our first applications are in targeted delivery, treating diseases like age-related macular degeneration or retinal vein occlusions in which we try to deliver drugs to specific locations on the retina," said Nelson.

The most common treatment for macular degeneration is regular injections into the eye. The robot could be positioned in the eye for months on end, dispensing drugs exactly where they are needed.

So far, their experiments have all been conducted on the eyes of dead animals but they have plans to move onto living animal trials, followed by human trials.