Virtopsy: The New Autopsy
The word "autopsy" does not really bear the most pleasant of connotations. Most people don't like to think about dead bodies at all, let alone the dissection and study of them. But, autopsies have been an essential part of forensic science for hundreds of years, and even longer if one considers the ancient Egyptian practice of removing and examining organs during mummification. Up until recently, traditional scalpel autopsy has been the best way to see inside a deceased body, and to determine what caused their death. While this method has been refined and developed over the centuries, it is not without flaw. In the process of dissecting the body, forensic pathologists cause unavoidable damage to the evidence. For example, skull wounds are obscured when the bone fragments fall apart with analysis. Paths that may have been created by objects such as bullets are destroyed, while the location of the bullet itself is unclear. In addition to the practical obstacles to scalpel autopsy are the ethical and emotional complications.
Many religious people believe that autopsy is a serious offense because it requires the destruction of the remains. Other people simply do not like the idea of their loved one being dissected, no matter how good the reason. Fortunately, an alternative to the invasive, expensive, and time consuming scalpel autopsy is being increasingly implemented. The so-called virtual autopsy is a technology combining CT and MRI scans, biopsy, and computer software to conduct an autopsy through images. The use of postmortem imaging itself is not new, but the ability to merge the different kinds of images into 3D, permanent records will give forensic pathologists huge advantages, both practical and sociological.
The process is mainly the work of scientists at the University Medical Center's Institute of Diagnostic Radiology in Bern, Switzerland. They have trademarked the name Virtopsy for the technology. In the past three years, the team has performed over one hundred virtual autopsies. Because the Virtopsy is relatively new, they also performed traditional autopsies afterward. So far, the results have matched. "We are now in the research phase, which is a difficult time for Virtopsy," explained Dr. Richard Dirnhofer, founder and manager of the Virtopsy Project at the University of Bern. "The feasibility has been shown, but now the technology must hold up to repeated testing. As with DNA, it will be a step-by-step process."
The superiority of virtual autopsy is far reaching. First of all, other than a small tissue biopsy to measure cellular structure, there is no incision required. This not only makes a cleaner, more accurate, and less tedious job for the scientists, but satisfies the wishes of loved ones who want the body left intact. Second, the autopsy itself is an electronic, permanent record. Traditional scalpel autopsy, once it was completed, could not be reproduced. This meant that opinions and conclusions about the cause of death were only given by a few. Now, the virtual autopsy can be stored, shared, and even used in courtrooms. Third, any community that has the proper equipment can conduct autopsies, even if there is no forensic pathologist on hand. The autopsy can easily be sent to another location for analysis. Fourth, virtual autopsy as a regular practice may be cheaper in the long run than traditional autopsy, despite the large initial expense of the required machinery. Proponents feel that the labor intensive and time consuming nature of scalpel autopsy requires more resources and people, and therefore costs much more than virtual autopsy. In the rare but dangerous cases of bioterrorism, virtual autopsy would greatly reduce the risk of medical personnel becoming contaminated. While all of this sounds very good, and no doubt Virtopsy will one day be the norm in forensic science, experts are not predicting an end of traditional scalpel autopsy. Most agree that while the virtual autopsy is an amazing tool, there are certain things it can not do, such as remove a bullet for examination. Most likely, the two practices will be used to supplement each other, making the science of forensics even more detailed and vital to society.