Kidney transplant recipient designs software that saves lives

A kidney transplant that saved him from the disease that killed his father and brother inspired David S. Jacobs to use his technology skills to save the lives of other people awaiting transplants.

Jacobs, a sales, marketing and business development executive in the technology industry, has spent the past seven years developing a software program that matches people needing kidneys with donors.

 “I didn’t expect or imagine this is what I would do, but now this work drives me,” said Jacobs, 56. “Pikuach nefesh, the gift of life, is the most important of Jewish mitzvahs. Originally, I was driven by the notion that I would be totally satisfied if I could save two people’s lives. I’ve had to move the decimal point twice, and now I’m going for 200.”

David Jacobs

Jacobs started working on the software in 2004, after he underwent a kidney transplant. He was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease in 2001 while working as vice president of business development for Macromedia. Jacobs’ sister also has suffered from the genetic disorder, and his father and brother died from it. In 2006, Jacobs started Silverstone Solutions, where he developed Silverstone Matchmaker, a digital cloud-based program.

Jacobs grew up in Chicago and moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s. He is married to Amy Shelton, a molecular biologist at Genentech. The family, affiliated with Congregation Sher-ith Israel, includes the couple’s three sons (Dylan, 9, Cassidy, 12, and Marley, 15) and Jacobs’ brother’s son, Meyer, 20.

Before his transplant, Jacobs spent more than three years on a waiting list for a kidney. He was on dialysis for 18 months. He recalls spending a lot of time reading about transplants and imm-unology, thinking about how to increase patients’ options. Within a month after receiving his new kidney, Jacobs started working on his software, which highlights kidney-paired donation matches.

“When a potential donor offers a kidney to an individual, there is a 30 percent chance that the kidney will not be a compatible match,” Jacobs said. “For a long time, 30 percent of potential donors were sent away, but with kidney-paired donation, you can match one incompatible donor/recipient pair to another pair in the same situation.”

California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco has used Jacobs’ software since 2007, arranging 44 of the hospital’s 65 multidonor kidney transplants. “David’s software has changed everything we do,” said Dr. Steven Katznelson, medical director of CPMC’s kidney transplant program. “Now, if someone brings in an incompatible donor, that donor can go into the pool.”

Katznelson noted that other, bigger programs in the country have similar software, “though none is as high-tech as David’s,” he said. “His has that Silicon Valley panache.” The hospital pays Jacobs to review and provide support for the program, which Jacobs is still perfecting, but patients and donors pay nothing.

“When I first set out to build the software, I thought, naively, that it was a simple problem,” Jacobs said. “Half a decade later, I am still working on it. But the real heroes are those people who want to donate their kidneys to people in need, because people are dying every day.”

Patients who undergo kidney transplants must take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives to keep their bodies from rejecting the donated organ. One potential side effect from those life-saving drugs is a form of lymphoma. Jacobs got it. “In the last year, I have survived cancer,” he said. “Everything is in remission now and I am doing great. I am even back to mountain biking.”

Rabbi Larry Raphael, senior rabbi at Sherith Israel, has known Jacobs for three years. “In the process of getting to know the family, I learned David’s story, and that story is inspirational,” Raphael said. “Some congregants know his story because he spoke about it two years ago at his son’s bar mitzvah, but others may not know. David is not the type to go around sounding off about what he does.”

Jacobs said that in the next few weeks, some “large groups of hospitals” plan to adopt his software. “Still, this is just one pinpoint, because the need for kidneys is a global problem. I would like to take this to Israel, and to other parts of the world,” he added. “I hope over time I can expand it out — and then be obsoleted.”