Larry Smarr is many things. He is the founding director of the California Institute foe Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a joint venture between University of California Irvine and University of California San Diego. He is a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California San Diego. He is also suffering from Crohn’s disease.

When he found out about his diagnosis, Smarr did not shy away, but took it as an opportunity to learn and educate the public by developing a 3D model from his MRI scans with the help of computer scientist, Jürgen Schulze. Part of Smarr’s duties at Calit2 is to bring visitors to the StarCAVE, a walk-in virtual reality room which is of the utmost quality and can accommodate 6 people at a time. Thanks to his collaboration with Schulze, the StarCAVE was soon transformed into a virtual reality of Smarr’s color.

Smarr’s colon displayed in the StarCAVE virtual reality room.

With his colon on display, visitors to the StarGAZE were able to see the inflammation in the colon that would ultimately be revealed to be colonic Crohn’s disease. Once the inflammation grew to the point where a portion of his intestine had twist and become closed off almost entirely, Smarr would require surgery to remove the portion. Just prior to his surgery, Smarr invited his surgeon, Dr. Sonia Ramamoorthy, to the StarCAVE room to observe the 3D images of his cool that he and Schulze had developed.

During her observation of his colon in virtual reality, Dr. Ramamoorthy was able to see exactly where she needed to cut the part out and where she would need to remove excess tissue. She also noticed something which caused her to completely change her surgical plans for Smarr. As she observed his colon and the surrounding organs, she noticed that his abdomen actually attached to his spleen in a completely different location than they had anticipated for the portion of intestine to be removed. This forced Dr. Ramamoorthy to make some vital adjustments to her surgical gameplan.

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Dr. Ramamoorthy studying Smarr’s colon in the StarCAVE allowed her to perfect the surgical plans she had in place.

Because of this new evidence, Dr. Ramamoorthy was forced to cut 5 access ports for her surgical robot in different locations than she had originally planned. Had she been unaware of the location variance in his abdomen, she may have had to perform surgery without the assistance of her surgical robot, or not use it at all. This could have dramatically changed both the surgery’s success and the operational time – it could’ve potentially added another 40 minutes to the operation without knowledge of the location because she would have been forced to undock the robot and make new access holes in the appropriate positions.

According to Dr. Ramamoorthy, “He helped me see what I was going to encounter during the operation, to start to plan my road trip way in advance and already know where the traffic jams were going to be so I could work around them,” she said. “We were able to place our ports perfectly to allow us to accomplish the goal. Otherwise, we would have been off.”

Following his surgery, Smarr has recovered well and actually keeps a 3D printed replica of the part removed from his colon. In the past, 3D printing technology has been utilized in surgical operations for the brain and heart, but has rarely been used in abdominal surgeries. Smarr is dedicated to changing that and is pushing for the installation of a StarCAVE in UC San Diego’s Altman Clinical and Transnational Research Institute, which connects to the new Jacobs Medical Center, so that MRI and CT scans can be transformed in 3D models for surgeons to observe in their operational planning.