Nova Scotia

Former Cape Breton doctor looks into using Facebook to find organ matches

A team led by a doctor who used to work in Glace Bay is researching using software to scan a person's photo — on Facebook for example — to determine whether they'd be a good match for someone who needs a transplant.

Simple scan of someone's face could hold key for a match

Social media may one day be the answer for people seeking bone marrow or organ transplants, says a former Glace Bay, N.S., doctor.

Dr. Robert Moore, who now lives in Massachusetts, is working on a project called GeneSetMatch. His team wants to improve the way organ and bone marrow donation matches are made.

The team uses software to scan a person's photo — on Facebook, for example — to determine whether they'd be a good match for someone who needs a transplant.

"There's a huge amount of information in a person's face," Moore said.

Organ donation like blood donation

According to the doctor, face structure is a good indicator of how people match up for organ or bone marrow donations.

As he explains it, organ donation is like blood donation in that the person donating and the one in need must have the same "type."

Similarly, in organ donation, people must have the same immune system genes or human leukocyte antigens, HLA — a set of proteins on the surface of cells that help the body's immune system distinguish what belongs in the body and what doesn't.

Previous studies have shown that these HLA genes and their chromosome 6 neighbours may influence facial characteristics and other visually perceived traits.

By scanning faces using photos that could appear on Facebook, the software can predict or narrow down if someone is likely to have the same HLA as the person who needs a transplant.

Moore is hoping, in time, that enough people in need will join the database that he can "unleash the project on the world." He's hoping for at least 300.

If a scan of a person's face on social media indicates that he or she might be a match for someone in the database, that person in need of a transplant could — through Moore's organization — contact that person to check on their willingness to be tested as a possible match.  

A need for a better donor system

Moore says it's no different from any other solicitation: there's no obligation to say yes or go further with it.

It would be a major step forward, said Moore: "A huge improvement in the time in finding these people rather than the random method that's being used now."

By scanning faces using photos that could appear on Facebook, the software can predict or narrow down if someone is likely to have the same immune system genes as the person who needs a transplant. (Gene Set Match)

GeneSetMatch is currently raising money to make the project a reality.

Dr. Moore says during his more than 25 years working as a primary care physician, he's seen the need for a better donor system. 

"I've witnessed the anguish that family members and friends have endured when they are waiting in need of a an organ donation," he said. 

"Although there have been tremendous strides made in the system of donor and recipient matching, it's clear we have to do better."

A brief overview of the project is available online at genesetmatch.com.

About the Author

Hal Higgins

News Editor

Hal Higgins is a reporter and editor at CBC Cape Breton. He has been with the CBC for 36 years, during which he has also been a host of several radio programs.

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