What if, with one marching order, a swarm of micro-robots (directed by magnets!) could break apart and remove dental plaque from a tooth? A cross-disciplinary partnership among dentists, biologists and engineers agree that it’s possible in the very near future.

A team of scientists from the three fields at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a microscopic robotic cleaning crew. With two types of robotic systems — one designed to work on surfaces and the other to operate inside confined spaces — the scientists showed that robots could ably destroy biofilms, the sticky amalgamations of bacteria enmeshed in a protective scaffolding.

Robotic biofilm-removal systems like the one they developed could be valuable in a wide range of potential applications, from keeping dental tools clean to reducing the risk of tooth decay, endodontic infections and implant contamination.

The work, published in Science Robotics, was led by Hyun (Michel) Koo of the School of Dental Medicine and Edward Steager of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"This was a truly synergistic and multidisciplinary interaction," said Koo. "We're leveraging the expertise of microbiologists and clinician-scientists as well as engineers to design the best microbial eradication system possible. This is important to other biomedical fields facing drug-resistant biofilms as we approach a post-antibiotic era."

Addressing plaque that occurs on teeth requires a great deal of manual labor, both on the part of the consumer and the dentist. This project was birthed with the hope of improving treatment options as well as reducing the difficulty of care.

To advance the project along its journey to clinical use, the researchers are receiving support from the Penn Center for Health, Devices, and Technology, an initiative supported by Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, Penn Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

Penn Health-Tech, as it's known, awards select interdisciplinary groups with support to create new health technologies, and the robotic platforms project was one of those awarded support in 2018.

"The team has a great clinical background on the dental side and a great technical background on the engineering side," says Victoria Berenholz, executive director of Penn Health-Tech. "We're here to round them out on the business side. They have really done a fantastic job on the project."