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Pioneering the art of virtual autopsies

A 3-D reconstruction of a victim with blunt trauma to the head (Virtopsy)

(virtopsy)

Through its pioneering work on scalpel-free autopsy, a Swiss forensic team is revolutionising the way a dead body is examined to determine its cause of death.

Virtopsy, its brainchild, allows a virtual examination to take place without wielding a knife, through a combination of digital scanning and imaging techniques.

Virtual autopsy as created by Michael Thali's team at Bern University has three aspects: multi-slice computer tomography (MSCT), magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) and 3-D surface-scanning technology.

The information collected from all three sources results in a three-dimensional visualisation of the body.

Traditional autopsy – with its invasive procedures – has certain disadvantages, says Thali.

"Autopsy reports involve subjective interpretations," he told swissinfo.

He added that the data collected by Virtopsy was objective in that it was "free from human intervention" and left the pathologist with clean hands.

Another advantage was that the data from one body could be collected in less than half an hour.

In addition, when it came to cases where someone had died in mysterious circumstances, pathologists would not need to hold on to body parts for further investigation because of the existence of digital data.

Relatives of the deceased would also be free to bury their loved ones properly.

Also the lack of gore depicted on the data would make presenting such evidence in court a less traumatic experience for the jury, witnesses and members of the legal profession, says Thali.

Peeling off layers

His associate Emin Aghayev was on hand to demonstrate how the data could be viewed in the team's offices and showed me the hundreds of CDs containing data on the 120-odd "virtopsies" locked away in Virtopsy's headquarters in Bern's university quarter.

All the results have been verified with a follow-up autopsy.

The 3D visualisation of the body can be examined on-screen, layers such as clothing and skin can be virtually peeled away, body parts digitally removed from the whole and viewed from all angles, section by section.

The trajectory of a bullet can be clearly seen, a skull fragmented by a hammer blow can be reconstructed, indeed the use of any injury-causing instrument can be viewed in its entirety, something that can prove difficult during a normal autopsy.

However, Aghayev pointed out one important limitation of a virtual autopsy.

"It currently cannot show organ colour, which can indicate inflammation," he said.

But Thali says that given more research, this may be possible in the future, adding that virtual autopsies were still in their infancy, whereas traditional autopsy had a head start of hundreds of years.

The living

And unlike old-school dissections, a virtopsy has one huge advantage – it can also be used on the living. About 50 per cent of the cases Thali's team deals with are still alive. They may have been the victim of violence.

In one example, a person's face was left with an imprint of a trainer sole on his forehead after being attacked by an unknown assailant.

The Virtopsy team was able to offer clues to the perpetrator's identity through his choice of footwear by comparing scans of the victim's face with various soles.

Its methods can also help to reconstruct traffic accidents by using the 3-D surface-scanner on the bodies of the vehicles involved.

In one case, where the deceased was hit by a car and left with on pronounced injury to his side, an examination of the digital data established that it was impacting with a wing mirror that caused the wound.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

In brief

Michael Thali took over the directorship of Bern University's Centre of Forensic Imaging and Virtopsy in February.

He heads a team of 14 people in Bern, who include medical doctors and visualisation specialists.

Virtopsy allows a virtual examination through a digital scanning and imaging techniques.

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