BERNE (Reuters Life!) - 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 percent 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 U.S. 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 60-80 percent 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, Thali said.
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 wide, which is combining the surface scanning with CT magnetic resonance scanning and post mortem angiography and post mortem biopsy," Thali said, explaining that the total installation cost more than 2 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 visualizes 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 of the system's use to the U.S. 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 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."
Reporting by Catherine Bosley, editing by Paul Casciato