Scientists Create Programmable Nanoparticle Toothbrush

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The basic design of the toothbrush hasn’t changed for a thousand years – sure, there are motors, different materials and funky shapes, but they’re still sticks with bristles attached. A team from the University of Pennsylvania believes it’s time to shake things up. In a new study, researchers have shown that shape-shifting nanoparticles can successfully clean teeth, replacing all manual labor with a nanoscale robotic dance. Not only can these particles be transformed into tooth-cleaning forms, but their action can have antimicrobial effects that destroy plaque-causing bacteria.

This project happened a bit by chance. A Penn School of Dental Medicine group led by Professor Hyun (Michel) Koo became interested in harnessing the catalytic activity of nanoparticles to release free radicals that could kill microbes on teeth. Meanwhile, senior engineering researcher Edward Steagar was leading work at the Penn School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on assembling nanoparticles into robots. Putting these projects together gave us the sci-fi gray goo toothbrush.

The combined team used magnetic fields to manipulate the iron oxide nanoparticles, first testing them on a slab of tooth-like material. Next, the team moved on to 3D-printed copies of teeth. Finally, they tested the nanoparticle brushes on real teeth realistically mounted to simulate a human mouth. Tests show that these nanoparticles can form brushes capable of cleaning the biofilms that lead to tooth decay. They can also flow between teeth like dental floss. Meanwhile, the nanoparticles promote the production of free radicals which further eliminate bacteria.

Although the gray goo brush hasn’t been tested in a real human mouth, researchers are excited about the possibilities. Lab tests show that nanoparticles can be programmed to do almost anything. They can simulate longer or shorter hairs, as well as varying degrees of stiffness. Thus, it may be possible to customize the system for each person’s individual oral health needs. This could help those who simply neglect oral hygiene, as well as those who lack the strength or manual dexterity to manage their own brushing.

Currently, the team is still investigating ways to optimize the movement of the nanoparticles, as well as ways to deliver and retrieve them from a patient’s mouth. The university’s press release does not mention the taste of a mush of iron oxide nanoparticles. Our guess is “not great”. Hopefully this issue is on the team’s radar as well.

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