Newly Developed Microbots can Help Prevent Blindness

A microrobot to measure the eye’s oxygen supply (Credit: Ergeneman O. et al, IEEE Tran Biomed Eng. 2012)
We need Oxygen. All the cells in our body including our lungs and brain but also our retina need oxygen otherwise permanent blindness can occur in some instances in as little as few hours. Until now it has been difficult for physicians to measure how much oxygen reach the eyes but a new micro robot developed by Swiss researchers could help solve this problem.
Glaucoma is just one disease which can cause damage to the eye and even blindness due to insufficient supply of oxygen to the eye. Researchers from the ETH Zurich university in Swiss created a miniature robots that can be injected into the eye and measure the amount of oxygen it receives in order to help physicians make fast and accurate diagnosis of the retina.
The researchers from the multi-scale robotics lab in ETH Zurich developed the microrobot in order to precisely measure the retina’s oxygen supply. Professor Bradley Nelson who head the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH explained: “I picture it like the robots that we use these days to chart the ocean floor. With our microrobot we can chart the oxygen levels of the inner eye liquid – the vitreous – along the retina.”
The retina is extremely delicate and doctors are looking all the time for new minimally invasive ways to perform eye procedures and the new Miniature robots are perfect for this task. The robots use fluorescent light which glows depending on the amount of oxygen flowing to the eye. The physician inject the microrobots into the eye and steer them into place using magnetic fields. Than the physician look into the eye to examine the amount of light the robots output. The more the robots glows, the more oxygen is missing (requiring a more immediate treatment to restore the levels of oxygen in the eye). This quick diagnostic method can help save sight in cases of extreme retinal oxygen depravation.
The new robots measure only a mere millimeter (0.03 inch) in length and one third of a millimeter in diameter. Professor Nelson recently explained: “We had this robot and wondered how we could use it to measure oxygen. We could have equipped it with a computer, a sensor and a transmitter, but simple is always better.” Together with chemists of the University of Granada who developed the fluorescent dye that behaves according to the amount of oxygen present the ETH team was able to adapt the micro robots to their needs.
Ophthalmologists could inject the tiny robots using a syringe, steer them into place using magnetic fields and microscopically measure the amount of light they output through the pupil. Since the robots are magnetically attracted to the syringe, Ophthalmologists can just as easily remove the robots the same way they are introduced.
Although this method is minimally invasive it still carry with it a small chance of infection. However other non invasive methods prove to be not as reliable at measuring levels of oxygen inside the eye. The researchers believe that a combination of technologies could turn the microrobot into a dual diagnostic- and operation-device in the future.
More information can be found on the ETH Zurich website.