Practice used structural expertise to design shell lace stent

Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu with the groundbreaking stents

Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu with the groundbreaking stents

Stephen Lawrence Prize-winning architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu have been awarded patent pending status for a new medical aid that applies their structural experience to the needs of patients with life-threatening throat problems.

Tonkin Liu has pioneered the use of structures based on a single-surface shell lace design – such as its Solar Gate sculpture in Hull, completed last year, as well as in pavilions and bridges – in work conducted in partnership with Arup.

Now the practice has created a version of its shell lace structure that is 500 times smaller than the architectural application, for use as a stent to support trachea-transplant patients and people battling collapsed airways as a result of accidents or throat cancer.

The new stent design exerts a natural outward pressure that lessens the risk of movement – one of the problems that affects products currently in use.

The project began after a clinical research scientist questioned whether the structural technique could be applied to the design of a small medical device. Government funding to create prototype stents using 3D printing was secured in 2016.

The shell  lace stent developed by Tonkin Liu and Arup

The shell lace stent developed by Tonkin Liu and Arup

Tonkin said the project was small in scale but grand in ambition, and demonstrated how architects could apply themselves beyond architecture.

“Our aim is now to bring the shell lace stent to manufacture stage and see it bring tangible benefits to patients globally,” he said.

“We need to collectively reimagine the role of the architect – the architecture sector has great potential to engage with different realms and professions.

“As we all live longer and make greater demands on the medical profession, we should all look to use what skills we have – in our case advanced digital design and fabrication – to collaborate and benefit society.”

Tonkin Liu's Solar Gate sundial sculpture in Hull

Tonkin Liu’s Solar Gate sundial sculpture in Hull – one of the shell lace structures that inspired the stent design

The stent design is C-shaped rather than tubular, meaning its geometry can better adapt to the unique physiology of each patient. It is designed to be manufactured from medical-grade silicon, with a perforated surface allowing for breathability and drug-delivery to the trachea tissues.

Prof Martin Birchall, UCL professor of laryngology and consultant in ENT surgery at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital said the new aid was a “remarkable and unprecedented stent invention that is groundbreaking in the context of currently available devices”.

The stent is inserted in its inverted position, and then unfurled to provide a flexible and strong fit.

Tonkin Liu won the Stephen Lawrence Prize last week for its Old Shed New House project in North Yorkshire.