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By Timothy Hyland


A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania is offering a hopeful vision for a more painless, healthier, dental future—all courtesy of the power of robots.

More specifically, plaque-destroying micro-robots.

In research that was published in the journal Science Robotics, the Penn research team—led Hyun Koo, DDS, MS, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and Edward Steager of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science—detailed how they have successfully deployed an army of micro-robots in the battle against the most fundamental foe of dental health: plaque.

Plaque, of course, is the sticky amalgam of bacteria, proteins, and sugars that lies at the heart of many dental problems. Dental professionals and even most patients understand that controlling plaque—which means successfully removing it from tooth services—is essential to avoiding issues including cavities and gum disease.

But even for the most thorough of brushers and flossers, the reality is that it’s almost impossible to remove all the plaque on your teeth. That’s especially true for biofilms that develop in areas of the mouth that are either difficult or downright impossible to reach.

That’s where the Penn micro-robots come in.

In work that was conducted alongside peers from across the university and supported by the university’s health technology development arm, the research team developed and deployed two robot systems.


The robots precisely, efficiently, and controllably killed, degraded, and removed dental biofilms.


Hyun Koo, DDS, MS, PhD
Hyun Koo, DDS, MS, PhD

The first leveraged innovative nanotechnology to compel the robots to clean visible surfaces of teeth, much as a toothbrush would (only more completely, and more effectively); the second used a 3D mold to ensure the robots could get down into difficult-to-reach spaces that often trap plaque, such areas between teeth—or even the isthmus connecting two root canals. Magnets were used to “steer” the robots.

The researchers said both systems proved to be highly adept at locating dental biofilms and then removing them to an extent that brushing alone would not achieve. The robots “precisely, efficiently, and controllably killed, degraded, and removed biofilms,” the research team said; the systems’ success at cleaning deeply hidden areas has particular potential for real-world application, they noted.

“Existing treatments for biofilms are ineffective because they are incapable of simultaneously degrading the protective matrix, killing the embedded bacteria, and physically removing the biodegraded products,” Dr. Koo said in a Penn Today news release. “These robots can do all three at once very effectively, leaving no trace of biofilm whatsoever.”

The work also has value for another important reason, Dr. Koo said. As the medical community becomes increasingly concerned about the rise of drug-resistant forms of bacteria, such precise, comprehensive cleaning systems may be called on to help destroy potentially dangerous biofilms, thereby avoiding the development of difficult-to-cure infections. 

The work was supported by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research and the National Science Foundation.


Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and The Washington Times.

Also by Mr. Hyland:

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