For Alvin Roth, joint winner of the 2012 Nobel prize for economics, studying the economy is about finding real-life solutions for real-life questions and never more so than in a revolutionary new system to match kidney donors with patients.
Roth and fellow laureate, the mathematician, Lloyd Shapley, have seen their groundbreaking work used in such diverse areas as matching up employers with job seekers, doctors with residency programs, and students with schools.
But arguably its greatest impact has been matching kidney donors to patients in a system that was first applied in New England hospitals under the New England Program for Kidney Exchange (NEPKE), a scheme Roth helped found in 2004-2005.
The computerized pairing of groups of donors and patients that Roth’s models inspired has revolutionized the way kidney transplants are handled in the United States and has actually increased the possible number of transplants.
Throughout the United States nearly 2,000 patients have received kidneys under the system developed on Roth and Shapley’s models that would otherwise not have received them, according to Ruthanne Hanto, who has worked with Roth since 2005 after being co-opted to manage NEPKE.
In 2003, the year before the system was implemented, there were just 19 kidney transplants from live donors in the United States nationally, said Hanto. That number rose to 34 when the system was introduced in 2004. Last year it reached 443.
“The majority have been done with some kind of computer matching,” said Hanto, who is now project manager of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a national kidney matching organization that NEPKE operations were folded into.
UNOS administers a kidney pared donor program for the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, a public-private partnership established in 1984 that links all of the professionals involved in the donation and transplantation system.
“He (Roth) had a hand in having these nearly 2000 transplants occurring in some form, because without his initial work none of the others would have been able to follow,” said Hanto.