Computer Science Professor Awarded Grant for Research on Making Sure Donated Livers Reach Those Who Need Them Most

July 8, 2019

UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND — Prateek Bhakta, assistant professor of computer science, has received a $100,000 award from The Thomas F. and Kate Miller Jeffress Memorial Trust to support his research on allocation policies for liver donations.

The goal of Bhakta’s project is to ensure that livers reach those who need them the most.

“When a liver is donated, the question is how should we decide who should receive that liver? This project looks at some of the logistical aspects behind this question,” Bhakta said. “Livers aren't viable for long once donated, so a donated liver can’t necessarily reach the sickest person in the entire country.”

Since donations occur following a donor's death, donations cannot be reliably predicted in advance.

“You might think a liver should always go to the sickest person it can reach, but this tends to disadvantage people in rural areas,” Bhakta explains. “The sickest person is usually always in a heavily populated area. The person in the city is more likely than the person in the rural area to be within range of donated livers in the near future, so it can make sense in the long term to give the liver to the less sick person in the rural area now.”

Bhakta with research associatesBhakta explains that currently the US is divided into eleven districts, and donated livers go to the neediest person within each district. The drawback of this policy is geographical disparity, which includes differences in population, physical size, and issues of racial or socioeconomic inequality between the districts. Due to demographic differences, patients in Florida, for example, receive livers more quickly than similarly sick patients in California.

“This disparity leads to a troubling consequence — it advantages those who have the means to afford a second residence in Florida and register themselves on the waiting list there,” said Bhakta. “Our goal is to develop allocation strategies that are both fair and robust with provably good behavior — individuals shouldn't gain an advantage by moving, ideally even with insider knowledge of the waitlists. We want people to receive livers based only on how sick they are, not where they live.” 

Bhakta with research associatesBhakta is a theoretical computer scientist whose areas of expertise include randomized and recommendation algorithms, probability, and statistical physics. He has taught at UR since completing his Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2016. He is collaborating on this research with colleague Sara Krehbiel and undergraduate research student Ting Chen (pictured left).