Jerome Unidad is a Member of Research Staff in the PARC Hardware Systems Lab. His current focus is on developing PARC’s Filament Extension Atomizer (FEA) technology, particularly towards new applications in biotechnology and biomedicine.
Jerome, what are you working on these days at PARC?
Together with the FEA team, I’m spending most of my time working on PARC’s spray, or “mist,” technology which is called the Filament Extension Atomizer, or FEA. In particular, I’m exploring new applications in the biotech field. The innovative aspect of FEA is that we can generate aerosol from fluids with a wide range of viscosities – from 1mPa-s (viscosity of water) up to 600 Pa-s (viscosity of peanut butter)! That’s more than five orders of magnitude in viscosity that we can span for generating micron-sized droplets. We’re spending significant effort in developing use cases in different contexts like drug delivery, powder creation, and more. Since we’re not limited by viscosity, we can do this for nearly any protein, DNA/RNA or any big or small biomolecule, in dilute or high concentrations. If we can aerosolize something as viscous as peanut butter, we can probably aerosolize almost anything.
What excites you most about the filament extension atomizer (FEA)?
At the moment, it’s an exercise in understanding how our technology interfaces with biology, which is a very curious thing for me as a physical scientist. There’s a big play on how we can use our aerosol platform for drug delivery and other high-value biotechnology applications. Right now, we’re partnering with some of the best academic and research institutions across the country in solving some big challenges in biology where delivery methods are part of the issue.
One example we’ve been exploring is oral vaccination for HIV, using polymer vehicles that will stick to the mucosal surface of the mouth to allow the vaccine to prompt an immune response. Currently, the most successful human trial of an HIV vaccine candidate has been the 2009 RV144 trial in Thailand which showed some limited bioefficacy. We’re working with research partners who have technology that improves on this earlier work and we’re exploring spray delivery in the oral mucosa as the delivery method. The hope is to develop an effective delivery pathway that is clean, non-invasive as well as effective to really give the chance for their vaccine candidates to work.
Another example we’re exploring is in wildlife healthcare management, particularly of bats because of their importance for ecological balance, agriculture and public health. In the northeast US in particular, there have been significant decreases in bat population due to the emergence of white nose syndrome (WNS). In some states, bat populations have been decimated by up to 90-95% and it’s a severe threat to multiple species and particularly for young bats. The delivery challenge is that even if there was a cure to WNS, how do we get them on the bats? Methods that involve capturing individual bats for injecting fluids would be hard to implement in the field, especially in caves. Spraying of high viscosity formulations that stick to their skin or that are edible might be the only scalable and viable way.
How do you envision FEA impacting the world in 1 year? 10 years?
In the examples mentioned earlier, some of these are actually of immediate importance so the prompt development of solutions is more than necessary. The issue with biology in general, however, is that there’s always this perception that the solution takes time to develop, especially solutions that have to go through various regulations. My hope in our development of FEA is to at least settle these questions from the device side and provide a platform through which potential solutions can be given the best possible chance of working. In 10 years, I hope that at least one or more of these applications have been developed to some level of maturity and that we have measurable impact on society from actual use.
What do you think is still the biggest challenge in this field?
Our team at PARC has committed a lot of time to really trying to understand the basic physics behind FEA. That said, we still encounter new questions every day that trigger our minds and refine our basic understanding, particularly with new fluids or formulations that we haven’t worked before and that reveal new challenges. Clearly, the more things we spray, the more things we learn about the process and the closer we can move this technology to usable form. All the technical capabilities we accumulate in the process also help us in tackling the next use case or application. The fact that FEA is a technology unique to PARC means that all of this is exclusively available for us to explore.
For the biotech area, one clear short-term challenge for us is finding a very strong use case where the drug-device synergy is really highlighted in bringing together a solution with enough biological impact. The latter is the hardest quantify for us in the physical sciences but I think it’s a challenge we’re very open to tackling and I anticipate developments on this very soon.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to PARC and where you are today.
I came to PARC in February of 2017 from academia and every day since I started has been a learning experience. There’s a lot of “bridging” that had to occur from being a postdoc in a European research lab to being a research scientist here at a tech company in the heart of Silicon Valley. Some of this is related to the nature of the research I do now: I had to shift from just asking fundamental questions to developing technology solutions to real-world problems.
Some of this bridging is related to my shift from a purely technical background to something at the intersection of research and business. I actually find this to be the most interesting part of the shift. In a sense, the research we do at PARC is not abstract and devoid of context, it has to make sense in all aspects, including the business side of how to turn it into a value proposition that addresses a market need and that has a path to maturity. Some of this bridging is related to the shift in my actual workflow which changed from just working in the lab, doing data analysis and writing papers to the myriad of things I do now as a PARC scientist: developing new ideas and new business opportunities, writing proposals for government funding, contributing to ongoing workflow and deliver value to our clients. This is the part where I feel I needed to do a lot of “growing up” – I’m not the guy who just sits in the lab and dreams of new technology that might work; I’m now the guy who has to figure out exactly how to turn that into a reality – from an idea to something actionable and demonstrable – and how to find the resources to make it happen.
What do you enjoy most about working at PARC so far?
Besides the cool stuff we get to do and the challenges we try to solve, I think the best part about working at PARC is working with colleagues who are very talented and experts in such a wide range of fields and with diverse personal and professional interests. It’s always fascinating to work alongside people with diverse perspectives on things, particularly technology, and that’s where true synergy occurs when you start to match multiple puzzle pieces coming from different fields into one innovative solution. A special shout out to our FEA team – these guys make every spray day fun and exciting!
On a perfect Sunday, how are you spending your day?
I’m a firm believer in active Saturdays and lazy Sundays. My Sundays range from “brunch and then nothing” which are usually recovery days after Saturday Ultimate Frisbee to grabbing coffee with friends and taking a stroll around Dolores park, plus points for Korean barbeque dinners and movie nights.
What are you reading right now?
Being Filipino, I’ve had a recent rediscovery of modern Filipino literature (fiction) by young authors from the late 1990’s, early 2000’s – a lot of them follow some social realist tone from that era that still somehow translates up to today. I just finished Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan, a noted Filipino crime novel of that period. Other than that, mostly non-fiction books in the general theme of history, culture and “soft” social science (Freakonomics-level). I consider myself a student of all these things but applied to things I see and experience (yes, I like people watching too). Recently, I also found that having a good travel book that matches a vacation destination has been an interesting exercise – I read The Beach by Alex Garland while in Bali last January and while I’ve seen the film and could recall the story, it was still quite a page turner with the words coming alive in the heat and humidity of actually being in the tropics on a tourist-filled beach.
Jerome Unidad is a Member of Research Staff in the Hardware Systems Laboratory. His current focus is on developing PARC’s FEA technology, particularly towards new applications in biotechnology and biomedicine. Specifically, he leverages his background on polymer materials and non-newtonian fluids on projects for additive manufacturing, aerosol delivery of high-viscosity fluids and methods for generating multicomponent droplets. He is also interested in applying physics perspectives to problems in biology and medicine.
Jerome obtained his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Naples Federico II in Naples, Italy as a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher under the project DYNACOP (Dynamics of Architecturally Complex Polymers) and his B.Sc. in Physics and Materials Science and Engineering at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines as a DOST-SEI merit scholar. As a Marie Curie researcher, he engaged with various European academic and industrial partners (such as Dow and BASF) in applying molecular rheology to industrially relevant polymer problems.