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CMU develops algorithm to match organs, potential recipients

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

Federal officials are working with experts at Carnegie Mellon University to boost the number of kidney-paired donations, in which patients with willing but incompatible living donors are matched with others in the same situation.

Kidney-paired donations emerged in recent years as a solution to the shortage of organs, with several small exchanges scattered throughout the United States. Officials hope a national system can generate more matches and reduce the number of people waiting for a transplant. More than 86,000 people are on kidney waiting lists across the country.

"It's a neat concept because there are a lot of very generous people willing to donate kidneys who can't because of biological incompatibility," said Elizabeth Sleeman, a policy analyst at the federally backed United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS.

The agency recently began a national pilot program using a computer algorithm developed at Carnegie Mellon.

Tuomas Sandholm, the computer science professor who led the effort, said the system is capable of analyzing a pool of up to 10,000 donor-recipient pairs in less than two hours.

"The bigger the pool, the more matches you can find, and the better quality matches you can find," Sandholm said.

The initial test run of the system included 43 kidney transplant candidates and 45 potential living donors. It successfully matched seven pairs, but after thorough medical evaluations only one exchange of two transplants will move forward. Nonetheless, officials say they are pleased with the results and plan another run in December.

"A national system is a good idea," said Dr. Ngoc Thai, director of the Center for Abdominal Transplantation at Allegheny General Hospital. The North Side hospital in April participated in a transplant chain involving 12 donors and 12 recipients at nine transplant centers.

"Chains have been very successful," Thai said.

Surgeons performed about 700 kidney transplants nationwide in the past three years using kidney-paired donations, according to UNOS. The agency estimates another 400 donor-recipient pairs from the pool of 10,000 could receive transplants as part of a national system.

About 77 transplant programs, including Allegheny General's, are part of the pilot program. Officials expect to conduct match runs every four to five weeks. Those interested in participating in the pilot program should contact any of the transplant centers. A list is available at unos.org.

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