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University of Missouri

Gut-level App

Apps and the future of health care.

Larry Smarr

Internet pioneer Larry Smarr is working toward apps that will help people monitor their health. Photo courtesy of Calit2.

As if helping to pioneer the Internet wasn’t enough, Larry Smarr, BA, MS ’70, ScD ’08, is now out to reconfigure health care. The astrophysicist-turned-computer scientist directs a research center, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), headquartered at the University of California, San Diego. He is a futurist who wants to help people take care of themselves using unobtrusive sensors and blood tests. In his vision, reams of data would go into apps that crunch numbers and display it in a useful way for people and their physicians.

It was the burgeoning use of computer technology in automobiles that inspired Smarr. These days, more chips go into cars than into computers, he says. Some of the chips monitor engine system subcomponents, and in 2000 Smarr started looking into human monitors. “I didn’t expect to put chips into people, but you could use nanosensors, something like temporary tattoos,” he says. Calit2 already has developed such sensors to measure lactate and pH during exercise. “The feedback can make you aware when your body is beginning to go south on you.”

Smarr is his own test case. For years, he has charted more than 100 of his own bodily characteristics through periodic tests of his blood and stool. His largely normal blood samples eventually turned up an outlier. Smarr’s score for complex reactive protein, which indicates inflammation, was five times above normal, then climbed to 30 times. Smarr dug deeper. Using stool samples, he had his immune system analyzed and found a variable that was 100 times the normal value. By consulting the scientific literature with these precise measurements, Smarr was able to self-diagnose that he had autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease, a type called Crohn’s.

Being a futurist can be a lonely business. “Last year, I was ‘crazy Larry with stool in his fridge,’ ” he says. “But now I’m seeing early adopters in the medical profession showing serious interest in becoming collaborators.”

Smarr doesn’t expect people to obsess about the numbers and types of bacteria in their intestine the way he does. “What I’m doing is exploring the future digital transformation of health care, except that in five to 10 years, apps will do the science part for you.”

Read how Larry Smarr might be shaping the future of health care in The Atlantic profile.