Micro-Robots That Can Wipe Out Dental Plaque Are Now A Reality

Visiting a dentist is normally time consuming and involves unpleasant scraping using mechanical tools to remove plaque from teeth. Dentists can now be able to deploy tiny robots to non-invasively and precisely remove the plaque. A partnership of biologists, dentists and engineers build micro-robots that can deal with the removal of plaque from teeth.

Case study

Dentists, biologists and engineers from the University of Pennsylvania teamed up and developed micro-robots to clean teeth. They build two types of micro-robots. One type to work on the surfaces and the other one type was designed to operate in confined spaces. They showed that robots with catalytic activity were able to destroy biofilms. Such a robotic biofilm-removal system is applicable in a wide range of areas. They can keep water pipes clean, reduce risks of endodontic infections, implant contamination and tooth decay.

The work was led by Hyun Koo and Edward Steager. Koo said that it was a multidisciplinary interaction. He said they were leveraging expertise from engineers, clinical scientists and microbiologist to devise the best microbial eradication system. Steager said that they were hoping to improve the treatment options.

Biofilms form on biological surfaces like teeth or on objects such as water pipes. It is normally difficult to remove biofilms when they form. They have a sticky matrix which holds the bacteria and provides protection against antimicrobial agents.

Designing the micro-robots

Previously, Koo and his colleagues had made progress at breaking down biofilm matrix with some outside-the-box methods. A team led by Steager was working with a robotic platform which used iron-oxide nanoparticles as the building blocks for the micro-robots. The engineers controlled movement of the robots using magnetic fields. This allowed a tether-free way to steer the robots.

Together, they designed two types of robotic systems. The group called them catalytic antimicrobial robots (CAR). The first one involved suspending iron-oxide nanoparticles in a solution and magnets directed it to remove biofilms on a surface. The second one entailed embedding nanoparticles in 3-dimensional shapes into gel molds. They were used to destroy biofilms that clogged enclosed tubes.

The two types of CAR were effective in killing bacteria, breaking down the matrix surrounding them and removing debris with utmost precision. The CARs were successful in removing bacterial biofilms from the isthmus, a very difficult part of the tooth to access.

Koo said that the robots were able to degrade the protective matrix, kill embedded bacteria and remove biodegraded products simultaneously. They leave no biofilm traces behind. This is something existing treatments have found difficult to do.


The researchers have been receiving support from the Penn Center. This is to enable them carry forward the innovation to clinical application. The Penn Health-Tech awarded support to the robotic project in 2018. The interdisciplinary team has a great clinical background on dental issues and great technical background on engineering. The right kind of support will enable them reach great heights.

Would you visit the dentist more often if such technology becomes available? We would appreciate it if you shared your thoughts on the discussion in the comment section below.




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