Genentech Using Virtual Reality as a Training Tool for Eye Surgeons
Biotechnology corporation Genentech has developed a virtual reality training tool to be used in training eye surgeons. The company is using the tool in clinical trials and expects it see widespread use in the coming years once approved by the FDA.
The use of virtual reality and augmented reality in surgical training and even in operative applications has been picking up pace in the recent years. In the past year alone, some 150 surgeons have used VR technology to simulate a surgical procedure involving the treatment of wet age-related macular degeneration in patients. The eye disease affects more than 1 million Americans over the age of 50.
This surgical procedure involves a delicate process of implanting a tiny device, the size of a grain of rice, in the eye which will gradually release the drug to treat the condition.
If approved by the FDA, the company plans to train more than 2,200 retinal specialists in the US to administer the treatments and VR will be a major component of the training process so as to enable these specialists to master the procedure.
Conventionally, surgeons master their art by practicing on patients. The VR tool hopes to create all the possible permutations of the processes and complications that can occur during the surgical procedure and then use this comprehensive library of surgical procedures to train surgeons and ensure they are ready and well prepared for the actual operation.
The trainees will wear the VR headsets and get realistic digital representations of the surgical procedures. Various movements performed when wearing the headsets such as the moving of your head will trigger an outcome in the virtual representation.
In spite of the widespread perception in some industry circles that interest in these technologies might be waning off, investments in virtual reality and augmented reality is actually on the uptick and is expected to hit more than $20.4 billion this year from $12.1 billion in 2018.
Genentech drew inspiration for its products from the aviation industry where air safety and flight proficiency have significantly improved over the past decade thanks to simulated training of pilots.
During the clinical trials, some of the eye surgery training will be carried out at the company’s South San Francisco campus. The trainee surgeons will be given a workstation that will include both a VR headset and a physical replica of the human eye along with the replicas of the surgical tools.
The surgeons will undergo training on how to implant the tiny treatment device containing drugs for treating the wet age-related macular degeneration as well as on how to refill the treatment device with drugs. To simulate the surgical procedure, the surgeons will move the replicas of the surgical tools onto the physical replica of the human eye during the training process. These will appear digitized in the VR headsets thereby replicating the surgical procedure in a very realistic fashion.
The VR headsets and technology for the training are to be provided by VRMagic, a VR company based in Germany.
Genentech has invested more than $1 million over the past three years in developing the surgical training program and the virtual reality equipment used in training eye surgeons.
A 2017 study published in a journal of American Academy of Ophthalmology showed that novice cataract surgeons were able to radically improve their proficiency after undergoing training with virtual reality simulation tools.
Treatments for wet age-related macular degeneration have existed from the early 2000s but these interventions only slowed down the disease progression but the condition would still degenerate, eventually leading to blindness. Before the FDA approval of the Genentech drug in 2006, there was also no means of restoring vision loss resulting from this disease. The rate of blindness went down by 50% after the introduction of the Genentech remedy. Currently, treatments for the condition require eye injections which can be as frequent as monthly and which, invariably, cause a great deal of discomfort to patients.
If the new Genentech innovation is approved by the FDA, it would go a long way in eliminating the discomfort and the burden of having to make monthly visits to the ophthalmologist. With VR, every surgeon performing this procedure will be well-trained and primed for the task.