Rewriting Life

Lightning Scalpel

It’s one of the most delicate operations imaginable: An eye surgeon excises a piece of membranous tissue next to a patient’s retina that threatens to damage or obscure the light-sensitive cells. Such “vitreoretinal surgery” can save the vision of someone whose eyes have been damaged by diabetes or trauma, but conventional microblades and microscissors can tear fragile tissues, and attempts to use lasers haven’t succeeded. Researchers at Stanford believe they’ve developed a better option-a needle-sized “plasma knife” that cuts via blasts of electricity.

The new knife, explains Stanford physicist Daniel Palanker, is a tiny electrode that delivers electrical pulses a few nanoseconds long to create “plasma streamers”-lightning-like discharges that slice through soft wet tissues. Since the process doesn’t require traction, as cutting with blades does, the risk of tearing is reduced. The surgeon sets the cutting depth and speed by adjusting pulse strength and duration. Mark Blumenkranz, chair of the department of ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, is helping test the plasma knife on rabbits; the researchers hope to begin human trials by year’s end. Eventually, Palanker says, the plasma device could be used not only in vitreoretinal surgery but also to treat conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.