New software triggers life-saving kidney chains

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Saturday, June 27, 2015
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A software expert who received a life-saving kidney transplant over a decade ago has created a program to help match donors with recipients in an effort to help save lives.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- When UCSF and California Pacific Medical Center recently joined forces to transplant kidneys between nine people, it was one of the longest chain surgeries ever in a single city, but the technology that made it happen wasn't just in the operating room.

David Jacobs is a software expert who received a life-saving kidney transplant more than a decade ago. Shortly afterward he dedicated himself to writing a software program to help match donors with recipients. ABC7 News profiled this system three years ago and it has now grown massively more powerful. "A decade ago we looked at maybe six antigens. Now we maybe look at 1,200 variables," Jacobs said.

Beyond blood-type, the software compares proteins and antibodies in a patient's tissue that can trigger organ rejection and even judges the chance of success.

UCSF nephrologist Brian Lee, M.D., says screening with that level of detail would be nearly impossible by hand. "That's basically like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Dr. Lee.

The system, known as match-grid works on an ultra-fast cloud computing platform. Developers say it's real power is sorting through thousands of patients who have incompatible donors and coming up with mix and match combinations. "The software really puts together all the blood-type and immunologic data," points out Steven Katznelson, M.D., medical director of the kidney transplant program at California Pacific Medical Center.

And increasingly the result are so-called transplant chains, which offer life-changing transplants to longer and longer lines of grateful patients.

Doctors say the software is so powerful that transplant chains could theoretically go on indefinitely. In practice, the number of patients is typically limited by the challenge of transporting organs and resources to perform the transplant surgeries.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.