Research has taken Dr. Larry Smarr into his own body for medical prosperity
Ryan Summerlin March 4, 2014
Dr. Larry Smarr is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, known as Calit2.
For 25 years, he studied black holes and delved into climate change, global innovation economy and cyber infrastructure, which led directly to the development of the Internet.
In the past 14 years, Smarr has looked inward and has used his own body for research to help society develop a better understanding of health and disease.
Smarr will be in Park City on Friday, March 6, to present "The Story of My Body: a Medical Revolution" at the Black Box Theater of the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Smarr, who spoke with The Park Record earlier this week, said he decided to use himself as a guinea pig while looking at the cosmos through his telescope.
"When I was studying relativistic astrophysics, I thought I was dealing with very complex systems," Smarr said. "I would look at the Milky Way’s sister galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, and thought it was complicated because it contains more than 100 billion stars. But as I began to think about my own body, I realized it contained 100 trillion microbes, bacteria. That is 1,000 times the stars that are in the Andromeda or Milky Way, and that’s pretty complicated.
"So I felt we should turn the telescope the other direction and explore the universe within," he said. "Over time, every few months, I analyzed my blood, human genome and the DNA of my microbes."
The recent developments in technology made it easy for Smarr to make the switch.
"The whole world is becoming more digital all the time and that changes how we do things," he said. "For example, you don’t wait until smoke comes up from out of your car hood anymore before you take it into the garage.
"What we have, is every second or minute, flash drives in your car record how the spark plugs or brakes are functioning," Smarr said. "When you take the car in for maintenance, say, every 20,000 miles, the mechanics read those results and compare that with all the other cars of your make an model. They can tell if something is getting out of alignment and the car stays healthy."
That same concept is being used with the human body.
"We didn’t have to embed computers in ourselves, but already you’re seeing people using things like Fit Bits and Nike Fuel Bands and other things that measure movements to increase our health," Smarr said. "There are something like 40 million users of My Fitness Pal, which is one of the most popular personalized and digital programs that record the different types and quantities of food types we put in our bodies."
There are a set of start-up programs that can measure blood tests and microbium.
"About 90 percent of the cells in your body are actually bacterial and not human," Smarr explained. "That is completely outside of modern medicine as we know it today.
"Our bodies are ecologies," he said. "We have hundreds of species of organisms in our bodies that work to keep us healthy. And until we had the ability to digital genetically sequence these organisms, we didn’t know about this. And these things are what I would like to address in Park City."
Smarr moved to California from the Midwest in 2000.
"I was in my early 50s and, like the average American, I was overweight, not exercising and eating a lot of junk that passes for food in our society," he said with a laugh. "I looked around at all these lean, running, bicycling and vibrant people and thought, ‘If I don’t do something different, I’ll be sent back to the Midwest.’"
So he got a trainer and started some exercise and read a bunch of books about dieting.
"I realized there is a science to how we take care of our bodies," Smarr said. "Going back to the car, for instance, if you’re tired of the cost of gasoline, do you put in a quarter tank of water and the rest with gasoline because it’s cheaper? No. Not one single person out of 300 million people in the Unites States does that. It’s because a car has a specific engine that requires a certain type of fuel.
"The body is the same," he said. "If you put fast carbs like sugar and refined flour in your body, you’re going to get fat."
Yet, an average American sucks down more than 500 12-ounce sugared drinks a year.
"That spikes the glucose and insulin system, which ends up putting calories in fat cells," Smarr explained. "For whatever reason, the average person hasn’t a clue how their bodies work. They have more idea of how their car works. Hopefully, the research that I’m doing with my own body will help us to become healthier in the future."
The Park City Institute will present Dr. Larry Smarr on Friday, March 7, as part of the 2013-2014 "Future in Review" speaker series. Smarr will speak at the intimate Black Box Theater of Park City’s Eccles Center at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 435-655-3114 or visit www.ecclescenter.org.