Deployment of microrobotics for dental treatment and diagnostics

With its irregularities and anatomical complexities, the root canal system is one of the most clinically challenging spaces in the oral cavity. As a result, biofilm not completely removed from the nooks and crannies of canals remains a major cause of treatment failure and persistent endodontic infections, and the means to diagnose or assess the effectiveness of disinfection are limited. One day, clinicians may have a new tool to overcome these challenges in the form of microrobots.

Magnetically actuated 3D molded robots are precisely controlled to target the apical region of the root canal without interruption from the surrounding periodontium. (Image: Penn Dental Medicine)

In a proof-of-concept study, researchers from Penn Dental Medicine and its Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) showed that microrobots can access hard-to-reach surfaces of the root canal with controlled precision, treating and disrupting biofilms and even retrieving samples for diagnosis, allowing for a more personalized treatment plan. The results of the use of two different microrobotic platforms for endodontic therapy are published in the Journal of Dental Research.

“The technology could enable multimodal capabilities to achieve controlled and precise targeting of biofilms in hard-to-reach spaces, obtain microbiological samples, and perform targeted drug delivery,” says Alaa Babeer, lead author of the study and doctor of dentistry from Penn. A graduate in dental sciences (DScD) and endodontics, she is now in the laboratory of Michel Koo, co-director of the CiPD.

“This technology has the potential to advance clinical care at various levels,” says Koo, co-corresponding author of the study with Edward Steager, principal investigator at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “An important aspect is the possibility of having diagnostic and therapeutic applications. In the microswarm platform, we can not only remove the biofilm, but also recover it, which allows us to identify the microorganisms causing the infection. Additionally, the ability to conform to tight, hard-to-reach spaces in the root canal allows for more effective disinfection compared to files and instrumentation techniques currently in use.

This microrobotics system is the culmination of years of collaborative work between Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering.

Besides the potential for improving endodontic treatment and tissue regeneration, researchers see this technology as something that could have broad applications.

“From disinfecting medical devices like catheters to keeping water lines clean, this technology has the potential to transform fields far beyond dentistry,” Koo says. “This could disrupt current modalities across all disciplines.”

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