A team of Swiss doctors is conducting about 100 autopsies a year without cutting open bodies, instead using devices including an optical 3D scanner that can detect up to 80 per cent of the causes of death.
Michael Thali, a professor at the University of Berne, and his colleagues have developed a system called “virtopsy”, which since 2006 has been used to examine all sudden deaths or those of unnatural causes in the Swiss capital.
The US military at Dover Air Force Base is using a more limited version for autopsies on soldiers, he said.
“Without opening the body we can detect 60 to 80 per cent of the injuries and causes of death,” Thali explained, standing beside the white cylindrical CT scanner in his laboratory.
The advantages of virtual autopsies are that digital, permanent records are created that can be shared via the Internet.
During an autopsy, which takes about 30 minutes, the deceased is placed on an examining table and the surface scanner, just larger than a shoe box and suspended from a robotic arm, traces along the body’s contours.
Two technicians in white lab coats then use computers to evaluate the findings.
“At the moment here in Berne is the only place world widecombining the surface scanning with CT magnetic resonance scanning, post mortem angiography and post mortem biopsy,” Thali said, explaining that the total installation cost more than two million Swiss francs ($1.98 million).
The CT scanner makes images of skeletal injuries and damage to the brain, while the magnetic scanner produces finer images of soft tissue, Thali said. Angiography visualises the inside of blood vessels.
“That’s the big advantage, because you don’t have to destroy the body you can see projectiles in 3D and can do the analysis,” Thali said, referring to the system’s use for the US military.
The 3D imaging began in the mid 1990s, but the post-mortem biopsy device – which uses a needle to extract cells – has been in his lab for only six months, he said.
Although there was little initial interest in the project, Thali said that he and his 16 colleagues were now receiving queries from places such as Australia and Scandinavia.
Despite their strengths, Thali said virtual autopsies were unlikely to replace the scalpel variety any time soon.
“At the moment the regular autopsy, which is a very old procedure, is still the gold standard. We can use the system for a car crash victim,” he said. “But not yet swine flu.”