Nanorobots Could One Day Automate Daily Dental Hygiene Routines

A recent study pairing dental and engineering researchers at the University of Pennsylvania brings to focus microrobots and the role they'll play in transforming how we discover, prevent, and treat disease in the future.

By Genni Burkhart 

Thanks to the innovative multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, shapeshifting nanorobots could one day transform how we brush, floss, and rinse our teeth. For those with disabilities, or those lacking the discipline to brush twice a day, this new technology is transformative. By automating the daily task of dental hygiene into a single, hands-free process, nanorobots offer those without the dexterity to do so themselves the ability to perform the day-to-day task of oral hygiene independently.

While an oral microswarm of shapeshifting nanorobots might seem like the plot twist of a futuristic science fiction novel, researchers were compelled to take on the antiquated “bristle-on-a-stick” design of the toothbrush – thanks in part to scientific serendipity.

Collaboration on a study(1) between Penn researchers, the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD), with support from Penn Health Tech, and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) laid the foundation for what could one day be a compelling replacement to the traditional toothbrush, using electromagnetically controlled microrobots to clean our teeth more effectively and precisely than brushing and flossing the “old fashioned” way.

Scientific Serendipity

Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and co-author of this study explains at Penn Today, “Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have a hard time cleaning their teeth.” Koo also happens to be the co-director for the CiPD, which began researching microrobots several years ago.

Meanwhile, Edward Steager, a senior research investigator at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-author of this study, along with his engineering colleagues Dean Vijay Kumar and Professor Kathleen Stebe, co-director at the CiPD, also began exploring the building blocks of magnetically controlled microrobots for different purposes. “Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” says Steager at Penn Today.

While the two groups at Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering were both interested in iron oxide nanoparticles, it was for unrelated reasons. Thanks to support from the NIDCR and Penn Health Tech, these researchers joined forces to construct a new platform capable of controlling electromagnetic robots – enabling them to automatically brush, floss, and rinse teeth with remarkable effectiveness.

Building a Swarm of Oral Plaque-Fighting Microrobots

To create a swarm of plaque-killing microrobots, researchers focused on their building blocks, iron oxide nanoparticles with catalytic and magnetic activity. Through the use of a magnetic field, researchers directed the motion and configuration of these microrobots to form bristle-type structures that either sweep dental plaque away from the surface of teeth or elongated strings capable of slipping between teeth like dental floss. In both situations, the nanoparticles produced a catalytic reaction that created antimicrobials capable of neutralizing harmful oral bacteria on contact.

Researchers in this study conducted their experiments using a magnetic system on both simulated and real human teeth. The results showed the microrobots successfully capable of conforming into various configurations able to destroy the sticky biofilms on teeth which ultimately lead to cavities and periodontitis.

In Conclusion

Microrobots aren’t a new science, but one that’s been around for nearly 30 years. However, due to recent advancements in techniques used in semiconductor fabrication, there’s been a rise in microscale and nanoscale research, making the once distant possibility of medical microrobots increasingly real – exactly why this research is so significant. The success of this research furthers the possibilities microrobots have in the advancement of how we discover, prevent, and treat disease in every part of the human body.

Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

References:

  1. Min Jun Oh, Alaa Babeer, Yuan Liu, Zhi Ren, Jingyu Wu, David A. Issadore, Kathleen J. Stebe, Daeyeon Lee, Edward Steager, Hyun Koo. Surface Topography-Adaptive Robotic Superstructures for Biofilm Removal and Pathogen Detection on Human Teeth. ACS Nano, 2022; DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.2c01950
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