Alvin Roth Transformed Kidney Donation System

2,000 Have Received Transplants Thanks to Nobel Economist

By Reuters

Published October 15, 2012.
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Before wide-scale kidney-pair donations, donors and patients mostly worked through a single transplant center. A patient would identify friends and family that were willing to donate. But if those Kidney’s were not compatible with the patient the transplant could not take place and they would have to go on the waiting list for a deceased donor.

The system that Roth helped build uses complicated computer algorithms that allows patients to effectively swap incompatible donors with compatible ones from other donor-patient pairs. This can be done with single or multiple pares or in chains of unrelated donors and recipients.

Donors that were not used and were willing to donate to someone they did not know were also not lost to the system as they had been before, but could be matched up to other patients.

The system actually increases the number of kidney donations that are possible because it means that only people who really need deceased donors are given them while others are matched with live donors.

“Paired kidney donation is one of the few things that has happened in the recent decade or more that actually has come along and said we are going to get more kidney transplants into the system,” said Richard Formica, medical director of the kidney transplant program at Yale University.

Formica, who has worked on a committee called the kidney paired donation workgroup with Roth for about a year, says that with pared donations the number of transplants could rise from between 1,500 and 2,500 a year on top of the 15,000 transplants currently undertaken in the United States.

Formica also points out that because more people are able to have live donor transplants fewer have to return for second transplants as kidneys from live donor tend to last longer.

“His algorithm allows us to see combinations that you wouldn’t see,” said Formica. “It revolutionized the way we do it.”

Roth’s award is a reminder of kind of hands on work done by some economists that can often remain in the background while most of the attention focuses on economists who tackle the big, global policy issues du jour, such as eurozone debt crisis and the financial meltdown.

“Economics is about the real world,” Roth told Reuters shortly after finding out he had won the Nobel prize. “We are interested in how people lead their lives and like to think of economics as being not just a social science but a humanity.”

Roth works in a little known field known as market design that he affectionately describes as modeling the various “courtships” that occur when choice is not free, but depends on a second element in a pair.

Both Formica and Hanto describe Roth as a man who is both highly intelligent and good a describing his ideas in a way people can follow.

“Al is great to work with. Obviously he is highly intelligent, but very down to earth, which I think is a great combination,” said Hanto. “He is obviously very good at building a theory, but then taking that theory and putting into practice and looking at the practical implications of it.”

For Hanto, the challenge now is uniting the three national kidney pair donor systems into one unified system.


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