According to organdonor.gov, there are 123,793 people currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, and an average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants. It’s a fact—organ donations save lives.
Many of us have the organ donation designation on our driver’s licenses, but the likelihood of being able to help someone today is very slim. With the number of people waiting for transplants increasing every day versus the number of available donors, economists, mathematicians, and doctors are turning to big data to help.
In 2004, economics professor Alvin Roth (building on the research of mathematicians Lloyd Shapley and David Gale from 1962) developed an economic match theory. This theory was previously used to match students with schools, doctors with residency programs, and employers with job seekers. In an effort to improve the matching of organ donation wait list patients to compatible donors, Roth began working on an algorithm with fellow economic professors Tayfun Sonmez and M. Utku Unver to find organs for previously incompatible pairs. For their work in matching theory, Roth and Shapley received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2012. This work by Roth and his colleagues was later expanded on by others and formed the basis for today’s Kidney Paired Donation Pilot Program.
The Kidney Paired Donation Pilot Program is part of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) manages the OPTN through a contract with the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The OPTN registers and tracks everyone who chooses to participate in the Pilot Program throughout the country.
How does the KPD Pilot Program work? Imagine this situation:
- Mary wants to donate a kidney to Carlos, but they are incompatible.
- Amir wants to donate a kidney to Shauna, but they are incompatible also.
- Amir’s kidney is compatible to Carlos and Mary’s kidney is compatible to Shauna’s.
By swapping the donors and the recipients in these two pairs, two transplants are made possible.