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Image: © ETH Zurich – IRIS – MSRL Portrait: © ETH Zurich – IRIS – MSRL


Originally published in May 2015

Updated in July 2018

With an aging population, Europe sees a rapid increase in the number of people affected by visual disorders requiring surgical intervention. Building on the recent advances in robotic assistance in surgery as well as in precisely targeted drug delivery therapies, Prof. Bradley Nelson has designed innovative microrobotics tools to overcome the particular difficulty of manual-performed eye surgery.

Prof. Nelson is a specialist in the integration of microrobotics and nanomedicine. Funded by the ERC, he has developed new, wireless minimally invasive diagnostic and therapeutic microtechnologies with concrete applications for eye surgery. During his BOTMED project, he has used these microrobotic devices to pursue specific ophthalmic therapies, including the administration of drugs to the retina to treat AMD (age-related macular degeneration) and RVO (retinal vein occlusion), two major causes of vision loss around the world and for which there is no effective treatment. With his team, Prof. Nelson successfully performed animal trials on rabbits and started the first clinical trials on humans.

These novel microrobotics procedures could reduce the risks related to manual-performed eye surgery, result in less trauma and faster recovery times for the patients and enable new therapies that have not yet been conceived. Beyond ophthalmology, they clearly have the potential to be applied in many systems in the body - such as the digestive, the circulatory or the respiratory system. So far, three spin-off companies have benefited from the technology developed by BOTMED.

In 2016, Prof. Nelson has been awarded a second ERC grant (SOMBOT) to develop fundamental technologies required for the fabrication of intelligent soft microrobots for in vivo applications. This project is timing since the field of microrobotics has recently started to move towards soft microrobots, which are made of soft, deformable materials capable of sensing and autonomously responding to their environment to perform complex tasks.

Brad Nelson is Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zürich (Switzerland). His primary research focus is on micro and nanorobotics with emphasis on applications in biology and medicine. He obtained a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University (USA) in 1995. He became an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1995, then an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in 1998 before moving to Zürich in 2002.