Kidney Transplants and a Nobel Prize in Economics

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In April 2008, doctors performed what most believe to be the first simultaneous six-way kidney transplant in the world. When one donor, who did not know any of the six kidney patients, stepped up to the plate and was a match for one of the patients in the group, the ball started to roll on this amazing procedure. Twelve individuals were in surgery at the same time, giving six kidney patients a new lease on life. This feat was made possible because of the generosity of the donor and because of the genius of Nobel Prize winner Andy Roth. The organ matching system he created earned him the coveted award and has changed the lives of thousands of kidney patients around the country.

What the system does

Roth created a system not for the intention of matching kidney patients with donors. Instead, he created a system that would match people in a variety of fields. His computerized program has been applied to matching job seekers with job offers, students with colleges and even medical residency programs to qualified students. The program uses design and matching theory to make stable matches and it applies perfectly to the kidney donor and matching problem.

The problem for kidney patients

Kidney patients are in the unique position of being patients who can have a live donor. Because people can and often do live on just one kidney, individuals who are in good health can volunteer to offer one of their kidneys for someone who needs one. If the transplanted kidney takes without complication, both people can live a healthy, long life with one functioning kidney. Many patients have friends or family members who are in good health and willing to donate a kidney. The problem lies in finding a match.

There are numerous factors that go into matching kidney patients with donors; simply having a willing donor may not be sufficient. That is changing with Roth’s system. Through his computerized program, kidney patients have a better chance of finding a match. In 2008’s six-way transplant, each of the patients had a willing donor, but none of the donors were a match for their loved one. When the sixth match was found, the doctors were able to swap the kidneys around the group so everyone had a match. Today, all 12 individuals are doing quite well.

Kidney donation still a strong need

In spite of Roth’s system, kidney donation is still a very strong need. The average kidney patient in need of a transplant has to wait 49 months to find a suitable donor. While this wait time is decreasing, the longer people have to wait, the less their chances of survival will be. The vast majority of kidneys come from deceased donors with a survival rate of 75 percent one year after surgery. The survival rate increases to 90 percent when the donor is still alive. The more people who step up to the plate and offer themselves as living donors, the more patients will be able to survive after suffering kidney failure.

With Roth’s system, live donation is becoming more feasible. People who know kidney patients can offer to donate even if they are not matches and increase the chances of finding a kidney for the person they love.