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Are You Ready For Shapeshifting Microbots To Brush, Floss For You?

A research team out of the University of Pennsylvania wants to automate basic oral hygiene routines like flossing, brushing, and rinsing with the help of some very small technology.

The multidisciplinary research team invented a shapeshifting robotic “microswarm” device that helps provide an automated solution for people who have trouble caring for themselves — or those too lazy to take care of their own teeth and gums.

Iron oxide nanoparticles with catalytic and magnetic capabilities comprise to microbots. By introducing a magnetic field to the swarm of microbots, the research team could shift the shape of the swarm into various useful objects like bristles or floss. In both instances, a catalytic reaction drove the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria on site.

On trials with both fake and human teeth, the robotic assembly successfully removed the biofilm that causes cavities and gum disease.

“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have hard time cleaning their teeth,” said 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. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multi-step process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”

Edward Steager, a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-corresponding author alongside Koo, said the nanoparticles behave in incredible ways with a magnetic field.

“Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” Steager said. “We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.”

The customizable nature of the nanoparticles make flossing easy for any set of teeth, researchers believe

Whether this technology sounds like a blessing or a strange waste of time, one thing is abundantly clear: some of humanity’s most basic functions are about to be disrupted by technology.

“The design of the toothbrush has remained relatively unchanged for millennia,” said Koo.
“It’s a technology that has not been disrupted in decades.”

The current research arose thanks to a bit of serendipity. Koo’s team at Penn cared about researching catalytic activity in nanoparticles, specifically the ability to release free radicals. Steager’s team, conversely, cared more about the engineering capabilities of nanoparticles and how they could be shaped. Thus, a marriage of structure and purpose was born in the form of oral health research.

The two teams combined to create a product that could change shape easily and release antimicrobials on site, similar to applying toothpaste or mouthwash. Plus, the iron oxide is already FDA approved and the scrubbing sensation did not damage gum tissue of animals.

The customizable nature of the system, the researchers say, could make it gentle enough for clinical use; but also highly personalized and able to adapt to the unique angles of a patient’s mouth and teeth.

“It doesn’t matter if you have straight teeth or misaligned teeth, it will adapt to different surfaces,” said Koo. “The system can adjust to all the nooks and crannies in the oral cavity.”

The system is also fully programmable, meaning that different patients could experience different versions of the same product.

“We have this technology that’s as or more effective as brushing and flossing your teeth but doesn’t require manual dexterity,” says Koo. “We’d love to see this helping the geriatric population and people with disabilities. We believe it will disrupt current modalities and majorly advance oral health care.”

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