Larry Smarr Drives Innovation as Experimental Patient of the Future

Xconomy San Diego — 

In the years since he basically self-diagnosed his own Crohn’s Disease (before he had symptoms), Larry Smarr has served as a pioneer in the digital transformation of medicine and as an “n of 1” experimental patient in the emerging field of quantified health.

Smarr came to San Diego in 2000 as founding director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). His career has moved from physics and astronomy to supercomputing and Internet infrastructure. But Smarr is probably best known these days as “the measured man” who routinely counts every calorie, charts every bodily function, and tracks over 100 biomarkers from blood samples drawn every month to three months. As he put it in 2011, “What I have learned about myself both illustrates and foreshadows the ongoing digital transformation of medicine.”

More recently, Smarr has moved from quantified health to what he calls “quantified surgery.”

Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition characterized by inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. As Smarr’s colon deteriorated from the effects of the autoimmune disease, he decided late last year to undergo surgery to remove his sigmoid colon. Medical imaging done in October showed that inflammation had reduced the organ’s normally 40-millimeter opening to just 4 millimeters. He felt extremely fatigued, and his abdomen was bloated.

“My wife said, ‘you look pregnant,’” Smarr recalled in a phone call earlier this week. “I actually thought to myself, if I don’t get this operation soon, I’m going to explode.”

In characteristic fashion, however, Smarr worked to incorporate big data, sophisticated computer modeling, and 3D imaging into the operation.

[Editor’s note: Smarr, who is also a San Diego Xconomist, will discuss how machine learning is being used to glean new insights about the human gut on April 19 at The Xconomy Forum on the Human Impact of Innovation.]

Larry Smarr, founding director of Calit2

Much of the work was already done. In 2012, Smarr and colleagues used MRI image slices and visualization software to create interactive and scalable 3D images of his colon. He gave … Next Page »

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