NYU surgeons hope a 3-D printed reproduction will encourage people to donate the faces of dying family members for use as transplants.

Most medical advances benefit the living.

This one is for the dead.

Sometime 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.

And 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 family members will feel comfortable using it for their loved one’s burial, even in an open coffin.

Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, head of NYU Langone’s face-transplant program. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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.

“Maybe a silicone mask approximates 75 percent accuracy,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, the 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, Dr. 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.

N.Y.U.’s hope is simple: that 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.

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