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Discoveries + Breakthroughs: Using Game Theory to Match Kidneys

In the United States, about 4,000 people in need of kidney transplants die each year because of the slow process of matching patients and donors. Now, a new computer program developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) could speed kidney exchange, saving lives.

As shown in a recent episode of the syndicated TV series Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science (DBIS), CMU computer scientist Tuomas Sandholm and his colleagues applied game theory to come up with an efficient algorithm to match donors' kidneys with patients in need of kidney transplants. By taking over the complex task of identifying the right donors for the right patients, the new software makes the organization of swaps safer, faster, and more efficient, especially in cases involving three- and four-way exchanges.

Until now, computer programs could easily handle two-way exchanges from a pool of donor-patient pairs. The new software enables more complicated matching by factoring in not just the number of donors but also the most efficient means of handling three- and four-way exchanges. In a three-way exchange, for example, Donor A gives a kidney to Patient B; Donor B gives a kidney to Patient C; and Donor C gives a kidney to Patient A.

"It's a very complex problem of deciding exactly what kidney goes to whom," Sandholm says. "This is really the enabling technology to get a nationwide kidney exchange going."

This episode, titled "Kidney Exchange," is just one of a wide range of mathematical, scientific, and technological topics covered in the DBIS series. The American Institute of Physics produces these science news programs, with the MAA as a contributing partner. The NSF-funded DBIS project delivers twelve 90-second segments each month for showing on local TV stations across the country.

News Date: 
Friday, October 19, 2007