In 2012 the Nobel prize in economics was awarded to economist Alvin Roth and mathematician Lloyd Shapley, for their work in developing algorithms for efficient computerized matching of individuals with unique needs with other similar individuals or institutions. Their algorithms have been used to match employers with employees; hospitals with doctors seeking residencies; students with schools; even kidney donors with kidney recipients.

That’s right; kidneys. Matching donors to recipients is not all that easy, because although a donor may want to donate to a specific recipient (say a relative, or a spouse), often they can’t because the tissue match is not good enough. That’s where Dr. Roth and his computer algorithm come in. By entering all available potential donors and recipients into a computer file and then applying a matching algorithm based on each donor and recipient’s tissue type, the best possible match can be found for each donor and for each recipient, even though they might not even be aware of each other. The donor may end up donating to an unknown and unrelated recipient, but in exchange the recipient will get a kidney from another, also unrelated, donor. The effect is the same as if the donor had donated directly to his/her specific recipient of choice!

Dr. Roth’s matching algorithm was first applied to kidney donations back in 2004 by the New England Program for Kidney Exchange (NEPKE). The method worked so well that NEPKE was later folded into the current national kidney matching system, United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Since 2004 Dr. Roth’s method of matching has resulted in over 2,000 kidney donations, most of them between unrelated donors and recipients.

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