Making high-tech copies of faces donated by terminal patients while still alive

Up till now, the best that medicine could offer a donor as a replacement face was a silicone mask cast from a mold, with features painted on.

NEW YORK — Most medical advances benefit the living.

This one is for the dead.

In the coming weeks or months, a brain-dead person, probably a man, will be wheeled into the plastic-surgery department at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. A technician will slowly run a scanner over his face, recording the tiniest contour and detail.

Then surgeons will cut off the dying person’s face and attach it to a disfigured man who has been waiting for a face transplant since last summer.

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Downtown from the hospital, in a basement below what could easily be confused with a Kinko’s, a team of New York University 3-D printing experts will work their own magic. They aim to generate a replica of the donor’s scanned face so lifelike — or perhaps more accurately, deathlike — that his relatives and loved ones will feel comfortable using it for their loved one’s burial, even in an open coffin.

Up till now, the best medicine could offer a donor as a replacement face was a silicone mask cast from a mold, with features painted on.

“Maybe a silicone mask approximates 75 percent accuracy,” said Eduardo Rodríguez, director of NYU Langone’s face-transplant program. “A 3-D printed mask can approximate 95 percent.”

Doctors in the fledgling field of face transplants are making great strides, grafting skin and bone and nerve and muscle to give patients new life and hope. In 2015, Rodriguez performed the most extensive transplant to date, onto a former firefighter.

But there can be no medical marvel without a donor. And asking a family to donate a loved one’s face is not like asking for a heart or a lung. Transplant-procurement groups say that for many families, removing the loved one’s face would amount to a second loss.

NYU’s hope is simple: A better replacement face will encourage more families of potential donors to say yes, reducing the wait time for the tiny but desperate pool of candidates for face transplants.

Helen Irving, president of LiveOnNY, a network that matches organ donors with recipients, said the 3-D mask would “make the donation journey more comfortable, and perhaps a bit easier, for the loved ones of donors.”

3-D technology

New York University’s 3-D printing center, LaGuardia Studio,…

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