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PHILADELPHIA, Penn., US: A good oral hygiene routine requires manual dexterity and can be difficult for elderly people and people with disabilities. However, researchers from the US have recently developed a hands-free microrobotic system that can brush, floss and rinse teeth, as well as treat and remove bacteria that cause dental caries.
In their proof-of-concept study, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the School of Dental Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania devised surface topography-adaptive robotic superstructures made of iron oxide nanoparticles that have two unique properties. Firstly, they are magnetic, allowing their motion to be manipulated and their configuration to be controlled to form various shapes, including one that resembles bristles and another one that resembles floss. Secondly, they are catalytic and can thus activate hydrogen peroxide to create an antimicrobial rinse that can instantly kill harmful oral bacteria and degrade biofilm.
“Imagine persons with physical and medical disabilities or the elderly who do not have the manual dexterity to brush and floss. This is a major unmet need to help with their oral healthcare,” co-author Prof. Hyun Michel Koo of the Department of Orthodontics at Penn Dental Medicine told Dental Tribune International (DTI).
Disrupting brushing technology
Discussing the motivation for the study, Prof. Koo told DTI that, besides facilitating toothbrushing for the elderly or people with disabilities, the researchers aimed to advance brushing technology. “The design of the toothbrush, essentially a ‘bristle-on-a-stick’, has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. It requires manual operation and dexterity and is not completely effective. It’s a technology that has not been disrupted in decades.”
The robotic system is customisable, which means that bristle stiffness and length can be easily controlled to make bristles firm enough to remove biofilm but soft enough to avoid damage to the gingiva. Additionally, the system can adapt to the unique tooth topography of the specific mouth. The robotic brush can extend, sweep with different motions, and move back and forth across space.
“All these features together provide a remarkable ability to clean teeth around the gingival margin, between the teeth and other difficult-to-reach areas, leading to complete plaque removal,” Prof. Koo explained.
In light of its breakthrough innovation, the researchers are convinced that the system will “disrupt current modalities and majorly advance oral healthcare”.
The researchers are currently working on further optimising the robots’ motions and on introducing the innovation to dental clinics. One of the options available would be to deliver the microrobots to patients’ mouths through mouth-fitting devices.
Applications beyond dentistry
Prof. Koo noted that the flexibility of the system allows it to be used in various settings, including the treatment of endodontic infections and root canal disinfection. Additionally, the system offers applications beyond dentistry. “The microrobots can be adapted to remove biofilm infecting medical devices, such as orthopaedic implants and catheters, or those clogging waterlines and contaminating other surfaces,” Prof. Koo concluded.
The study, titled “Surface topography-adaptive robotic superstructures for biofilm removal and pathogen detection on human teeth”, was published online on 28 June 2022 in ACS Nano, ahead of inclusion in an issue.
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