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Microrobotics for Precision Biofilm Diagnostics and Treatment

Magnetic, scalable, tether-free robotic device for sampling infectious and contaminating biological materials from confined or difficult-to-access surfaces and spaces, for use in diagnoses, composition analysis, and treatments.


Biofilms are microbial communities embedded within an extracellular matrix, forming a highly organized structure that causes many human infections. Accurate detection, retrieval, and composition assessment of microbial infections, including biofilms and contaminations such as biofouling, are needed for precise diagnoses and treatments. However, the heterogeneous distribution and uneven location of different species, especially those residing in difficult-to-reach places, poses a challenge to sampling and therefore requires surgical intervention or manual dexterity using invasive instruments to collect samples. Hence, diagnostic sampling, a key first step for diagnosis and treatment of infections, requires innovative and more precise methods, such as robotics, to address current challenges associated with heterogeneity and retrieval of biofilms. While robots have been developed for specific tasks such as targeted cargo delivery, microsurgery, and biofilm treatment, robotics applications for sample retrieval and diagnostics remain largely unexplored.


The inventors have designed and developed scalable micro- to milliscale robots that can be precisely guided to access difficult-to-access spaces and complex surface topographies, including angled grooves or narrow crevices, which cannot be accessed using conventional tools. Magnetic robotic actuation is attractive since it allows tether-free controlled motion and enables a wide variety of motility and locomotion strategies. Magnetic fields can readily and harmlessly penetrate biological and synthetic materials and can direct robots’ motion in confined spaces. In addition to commercial and other applications, the inventors’ robots can be used for (1) diagnostics via retrieval and sampling of biofilms associated with infectious diseases and (2) assessment of biofouling of dental and medical devices and implants. 


The inventors exploit the catalytic and magnetic properties of iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs) as building blocks for their wireless microrobot platform designed for biofilm treatment and diagnostics. They demonstrated proof-of-concept by retrieving biofilms from the exterior and endodontic surfaces of human teeth. This can be adapted to target difficult-to-reach anatomical spaces in other natural and implanted surfaces in an automated and tether-free manner.  This technology can also be used to direct/transport therapeutics to be released at a specific site. 


  • High precision and controllability to access difficult-to-reach surfaces in a tether-free and automated manner
  • Effective on biological or synthetic surfaces: retrieval and sampling of biofilms from biological tissue and assessment of biofouling in dental/medical devices or implants
  • Iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs) as fundamental building blocks enable significant design flexibility
  • IONPs possess minimal cytotoxicity, excellent physicochemical properties, stability in aqueous solutions, and biocompatibility
  • Scalable system can adjust shape and length to collect microbes and samples at multiple locations with complex topographies and geometries  


    Iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs) are fundamental building blocks of microrobots involved in the killing, degradation, and retrieval of biofilms, e.g., from confined spaces found in the root canal system, which is a challenging anatomical space in the oral cavity. The continuous tetherless reconfiguration of IONPs in target areas enables precise retrieval of biofilm contents from gaps and between teeth with submillimeter precision, providing a promising approach for diagnostic sampling of disease-causing biofilms. 

    Stage of Development: 

    • Preclinical Discovery 

    Intellectual Property: 

    • Provisional Filed 

    Reference Media:   

    Desired Partnerships: 

    • License
    • Co-development
Patent Information:


Docket: 22-9937 

For Information, Contact:

Neetu Amin Associate Director
University of Pennsylvania