Jan 9, 2018 | By Tess

A team of medical professionals from NYU’s Langone Medical Center are 3D printing highly realistic masks based on dead people’s faces. The team hopes that these 3D printed masks will make it easier for families of the deceased to agree to face transplants.

Death masks have existed since as early as Ancient Egyptian times, but only in recent years have they been used to enable face transplants for those with severe facial injuries. Essentially, masks based on a dying or dead person’s face are created to replace their actual face, which is surgically removed and implanted onto someone in need.

Like most types of transplants, there is a long waitlist for those who need new faces and few willing donors. (Apparently, if a person opts to be an organ-donor, it does not automatically give doctors permission for their face to be transplanted if they die, so families must agree to it.) Understandably, this can be a difficult decision for a family to make in a time of grief.

By providing highly accurate 3D printed masks of the deceased’s face, however, a team from NYU’s plastic surgery department is hoping that families will be encouraged to donate their loved one’s face in order to help those who have suffered severe facial injuries.

In making the 3D printed masks, the NYU specialists use a handheld 3D scanner equipped with five camera lenses to capture a high resolution scan of the donor’s face. With the data from the 3D scan, technicians then adjust the 3D model so that it is almost exactly like the donor’s natural face.

Once the 3D model is ready, it is sent to a large-format 3D printer, where it is printed layer-by-layer from an acrylic-based photopolymer material. According to the NYU team, a single face mask can consist of up of 10,000 layers and take up to 24 hours to print.

The resulting piece is a hard mask that captures even the smallest details of a person’s face, from subtle changes in skin color, to different textures, and more. According to Andrew Buckland, the manager of NYU’s LaGuardia Studio 3D printing center, on a very high resolution mask, you could even see the donor’s pores.

Because of the time sensitivity of the printing job, the 3D printing studio also has to work at records speeds. As Buckland explained to The New York Times, “We’re essentially condensing what we like to do in two weeks into 36 hours.”

When the 3D printed mask is complete, it is brought to the hospital where the donor’s face was surgically removed (usually while the patient is on life support). Once the donor has been taken off life support, the 3D printed mask will be placed on the deceased’s face and any edges or seams will be bandaged.

Eduardo Rodriguez, the director of NYU Langone’s face transplant program, says that the 3D printed masks are steps ahead of existing silicone masks, which had about a 75 percent accuracy rate because they were cast from a mold made of the face and painted by hand. “A 3D printed mask can approximate 95 percent,” Dr. Rodriguez reckons.

Ultimately, the NYU team hopes that these lifelike 3D printed masks will make it easier for families to donate their loved one’s faces for transplantation and help the deceased to retain as much dignity as possible.

(Images: Vincent Tullo / The New York Times)



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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