A shapeshifting robotic microswarm may one day act as a toothbrush, rinse, and dental floss in one. The technology, developed by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, is poised to offer a new and automated way to perform the mundane but critical daily tasks of brushing and flossing. It’s a system that could be particularly valuable for those who lack the manual dexterity to clean their teeth effectively themselves.
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristle-like structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss. In both instances, a catalytic reaction drives the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria on site.
Experiments using this system on mock and real human teeth showed that the robotic assemblies can conform to a variety of shapes to nearly eliminate the sticky biofilms that lead to cavities and gum disease. The Penn team shared their findings establishing a proof of concept for the robotic system in the journal ACS Nano.
The customisable nature of the system, the researchers say, could make it gentle enough for clinical use, but also personalised, able to adapt to the unique topographies of a patient’s oral cavity.
To advance this technology to the clinic, the Penn team is continuing to optimise the robots’ motions and considering different means of delivering the microrobots through mouth-fitting devices.
They’re eager to see their device help patients.