A few years ago fish pedicure treatments were all the rage and tiny, toothless fish nibbled away the dead skin on a person’s feet. Fast forward to today, and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania are developing a similar treatment for your teeth – no, not with fish and no, not on your skin. In fact, they are working on ways to remove plaque from your teeth using swarms of tiny nanobots or microrobots.

Plaque is a substance containing bacteria that forms on the surface of your teeth. If left unchecked and unremoved, it can cause gum disease and tooth decay.

Michael Koo, a professor in Penn Dental School at the University of Pennsylvania, said,

“Biofilms are complex and mechanically stable scaffolds that can be resistant to antibacterial drugs. Current antimicrobial techniques are largely ineffective for two reasons. The first is that they do not address the protective mechanisms of biofilms associated with drug resistance. The second is the fact that biofilms can rapidly re-establish themselves on a surface if not eradicated, and retake a hold, causing re-infection.”

So, the researchers’ idea is to use a small army of microrobots to non-invasively and precisely remove plaque. As the nanobots’ movement is controlled using a magnetic field, in theory, ‘steering’ could be carried out by a dentist.

In practice, suspended iron-oxide nanoparticles generate bacteria-killing and matrix-degrading molecules on the teeth by breaking down biofilm protection and killing the bacteria more effectively. Then, the bacterial biomass debris is sloughed away by applying an external magnetic field to clean up the surface so that it can’t return or grow back.

The researchers have so far demonstrated the feasibility and efficacy for the system, including cleaning a real human tooth.

“We are now optimising our system for clinical applications, including prototyping devices that use these microrobots for biofilm removal in a variety of surfaces,” Koo said.

Perhaps we’ll stick to the toothbrush and toothpaste for now.

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