updated 11/18/2005 6:09:45 PM ET 2005-11-18T23:09:45

More than 60,000 people are waiting for kidney transplants in the United States right now. The list is long, and the wait can take from several months to several years.

But it is the bad news that too often follows the good; A patient in need of a transplant has finally found a donor, but that donor is not a match.

For Shelby Fletcher, who needs a new kidney, the offer came from his cousin Jodi.  Because after two previous transplants failed, Shelby's waiting time for a third is now five to seven years — time he might not have.

“For Shelby really his whole life it's been a struggle to stay alive,” said Nancy Fletcher, Shelby's step-mother.

But now, there may finally be a solution.  A new program at Johns Hopkins University matches pairs of people: one gives, one receives.

“If I have a donor who is incompatible with me, and you have a donor who is incompatible with you, but your donor works for me and my donor works for you, we just exchange donors.  That’s the concept,” explained Dr. Robert Montgomery.

Dr. Montgomery pioneered the program after years of working with patients in need.

“These are desperate people who have to be hooked up to a machine three or four times a week for three hours.  Their quality of life is very much diminished and their life expectancy is greatly reduced, so they desperately want a transplant,” he said.

Two matching pairs are now possible for Jodi and Shelby.

“As soon as I found out there was a need I said yes,” said Jodi.  “There's not a difference to me if my kidney goes to my cousin or if my kidney goes to a stranger and my cousin benefits from my kidney going to the stranger.”

It worked for Shawn Moyer, whose wife donated her kidney on his behalf last year.

“It's hard to put in words what kind of a gift it is because it has allowed me to live my life,” said Shawn.

Alyssa Moyer takes gratification in her choice, knowing her husband doesn't have to spend anymore time in the hospital and can lead a normal life.

So far, about 60 of these living-donor pairs exchanged kidneys.  But, this simple idea might save thousands someday.

To Dr. Montgomery, “That is such a small percentage of what could be done if we had a larger pool of patients if we had a national program so its got to be done.”

The hope is to roll the program out nationally.  A recent collaboration between scientists from Johns Hopkins and MIT demonstrated that a national matching program for kidney-paired donation would ensure the best possible kidney for the greatest number of recipients who have incompatible donors.

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