Nobel Prize winner talks transplants

Stanford professor Alvin Roth gives speech on market theory at Grant Hall on Tuesday

Alvin Roth talks business.
Alvin Roth talks business.

Renowned economist Alvin Roth thinks market shares apply to more than just finance.

Roth is a joint winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Economics and a professor of economics at Stanford University.

He was the guest speaker at the School of Policy Studies’ event called What have we learned from market design? on Tuesday night at Grant Hall.

Roth spoke about the New England Program for Kidney Exchange, a computer-optimized matching program he co-founded that pairs recipients with appropriate kidney donors without involving money.

“[The system] achieves some of the benefits of a market, without using money, and thus without running into the barrier raised by the repugnance that kidney sales arouse,” he said.

Using his background in market design and economics, he said he helped design this program where there were previously no databases of incompatible patient-donor pairs.

“Economics is exciting and ... it’s about more things than many people think,” he said.

“Marketplaces exist in lots of environments that we don’t normally think of.”

Approximately 2,000 patients have undergone kidney transplants because of the organ matching program he helped design.

The program operates through the use of two pairs of incompatible donors and recipients.

Someone wanting to donate a kidney to a friend or family member who isn’t a match will “swap” partners and donate to another participant who is.

With this “in-kind” exchange, organs are replaced but no money is involved, Roth said at the talk. The first successful match using the pool happened in October 2010.

“Buying organs may turn people into means, not ends,” he added.

The waiting list for kidney transplants in the U.S. has almost 100,000 people, Roth said, many of whom die before receiving a transplant.

Seventy-two per cent of those on the waiting list for organ transplants in Canada are in search of a kidney.

In addition to addressing recent developments in market design, Roth focused on the different types of kidney transplants and how laws on the subject change depending on the country.

While purchasing organs for money is illegal in the U.S., countries such as Iran have a legal market for the industry, he said.

But black markets in the organ donation industry are common throughout the world.

“Making markets illegal doesn’t stop illegal markets,” Roth said.

In 1984, the National Organ Transplant Act was passed in the U.S. and made any transplant for monetary gain illegal.

“Organ transplants are an example of allocation of scarce resources, without the use of money,” Roth, who was speaking for the first time at Queen’s, said.

“I have some former students here and it’s a pleasure to see them.”

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