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In 2007, New Scientist magazine mentioned a term that I’ve since learned appeared first in a series of academic articles in 2003 but which is not well known. That may in part be because it’s specialist, but also because its subject matter is gruesome.

Autopsies are very messy procedures, involving extensive post-mortem surgery that by its nature is destructive. So much depends on the skill and observation of the pathologist, who may miss things. A team at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Berne in Switzerland has been working for the past 15 years on creating a virtual alternative — a virtopsy — that doesn’t involve cutting into the body.

This makes use of non-invasive techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) and surface scans, which can be recorded and re-analysed later by an independent specialist. Guided by these scans, a surgical robot — dubbed a virtobot — can then take samples for analysis.


Other forensic pathology laboratories around the world have introduced imaging techniques into their autopsy procedures, but the Bern operation — which performed its 100th virtopsy last year — is by far the most advanced. ... Taking automation to the next level, they added a robot, the “Virtobot”, that can be fitted with a needle and manoeuvred into position by a remote computer, to take a tissue sample should the pathologist need more information.

Independent, 31 May 2010.

According to two autopsy and body imaging experts at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the notion that “virtopsy” could replace traditional autopsy — made popular by such TV dramas — is simply not ready for scientifically vigorous prime time. The latest virtual imaging technologies — including full-body computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, X-ray and angiography — are helpful, they say, but cannot yet replace a direct physical inspection of the body’s main organs.

Health & Medicine Week, 3 Feb. 2012.

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Page created 09 Nov 2007; Last updated 19 Jan 2013