Bay Area software links patients, kidney donors

July 13, 2010 7:12:33 PM PDT
Technology developed in the Bay Area could soon have a dramatic impact on kidney transplants. It is designed to help patients who need a matching donor and a new version may be able to pair up thousands of patients in a fraction of the time.

Maggie Ervin recently started a chain reaction. After listening to a documentary on organ donation, she decided to donate one of her two kidneys to a stranger, as an altruistic donor.

Rather than helping just one person, Maggie's kidney was the first of a chain donation at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Over the course of the day, surgeons removed and transplanted kidneys among half a dozen people.

"It's exciting. A lot of people are getting transplanted that otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to get a transplant," said.

They are known as unmatched donors. Maggie's kidney went to Fernando Rico whose friend Guadalupe Ramirez was not compatible. Instead, Guadalupe donated her kidney in Fernando's name to a different recipient, whose sister then donated to another stranger.

What makes these chains incredibly difficult to arrange, are the dozens of variables that have to line up, everything from blood type to obscure proteins in the immune system.

"To give you a sense of the mathematics involved, in just a three-way pairing, in this case 200 people, that's 3.2 million possibilities," says sofware developer David Jacobs.

That is why CPMC turned to Jacobs, a high-tech executive and former transplant patient. He developed a computer program called Matchmaker, to help connect compatible strangers from a pool of thousands. Now, that program, which ABC7 first profiled in 2007, is about to get substantially more powerful.

This month, Jacobs is rolling out a version based on a cloud computing platform, which gives the system access to hundreds of computers and servers at a time.

"It's designed not for one hospital or two or three, it's designed for hundreds of hospitals. So the notion that it will be able to tackle the national problem, if not the global problem," Jacobs says.

The system is designed to quickly perform pairings that used to take months.

"When we started this process we were matching about 20 percent of the compatible pairs who came our way," says Dr. Steven Katz Nelson, director of the kidney transplant program at CPMC. "It's really accelerated quite a bit, such that we now feel that you can match at least 50, if not 60 percent of our incompatible pairings."

Maggie's kidney was put on ice and rushed next door where it was transplanted in Fernando, the lifesaving gift both he and his friend Guadalupe were hoping for.

"Because he's my best friend and I love his family and I give life to somebody," says donor Guadalupe Ramirez.

Maggie Ervin went home a day and a half after donating her kidney and is doing fine. So are Fernando, Guadalupe and the rest of the patients in the kidney chain.


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