Sickle and Flow: Connecting Science, Music, and Public Health

Chris Lewis

Background: Chris Lewis introduces Park Cannon to deliver the welcome address.  Midground: Lisa Mills manages cheek swabs for Be the Match.  Foreground: Sickle cell warriors Constance and Aaron speak with attendees. 

Background: Chris Lewis introduces Park Cannon to deliver the welcome address.

Midground: Lisa Mills manages cheek swabs for Be the Match.

Foreground: Sickle cell warriors Constance and Aaron speak with attendees. 

As the dusky rays of sunlight began to set on World Blood Day, a diverse crowd of scientists, rappers, clinicians and artists gathered at Boulevard and Edgewood to advocate for social justice in healthcare, celebrating the lives of those affected by sickle cell disease. Steps away from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward, the crowd was spurred into action by a dedicated group of Emory students and Atlanta community members who seek to leverage their talents in music and the arts to promote basic and translational research for this often-stigmatized and chronically under-funded disease. 

Sickle cell is an inherited disorder of red blood cells that is most commonly diagnosed in people of color.  One in 360 African-Americans will be born with sickle cell anemia, suffering intensely painful crises or stroke when sickled red cells get trapped in blood vessels throughout the body. Beyond the preventive health-focused sphere of pediatrics, many adults get haphazard symptom-managing care at best, complicated by a healthcare system that sees them as painkiller addicts; life expectancy is 36 years for men, 48 for women. However, cell therapy research at Emory, developed in part by Dr. Edmund Waller, has shown great efficacy, resulting in cures for an increasing number of patients nationwide. 

Sickle and Flow was birthed from the mind of Marika Wieliczko, a PhD candidate in the Chemistry department at the Laney Graduate School, with help from Chris Lewis, an MD/PhD student studying immunology. They were joined in the planning and coordinating efforts by Moji Hassan (MD/PhD: Immunology) and Becky Bartlett (PhD: Chemistry). Billed as a hip hop benefit concert, the event featured performers from the ATL music scene, running the gamut from hip hop to soul, electronic-infused R&B to indie rock.  The event was hosted at two venues on Edgewood, the Sound Table and Peaceful Clouds, and featured participatory graffiti art, live DJs, the BBQ King and King of Pops. State Rep. Park Cannon, recently re-elected 25-year old Georgia legislator from the Old Fourth, delivered a welcome address in which she stressed the importance of community engagement to effect social justice. The evening also featured special guests from the sickle cell patient advocacy community, including Ms. Aaron Washington and Ms. Constance Benson.  Both Aaron and Constance have been cured of sickle cell by Emory scientists, but they emphasized that though now sickle-free, they are sickle cell warriors for life. 

Atlanta native Dr. Margo Rollins (Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) also spoke of her work in pediatric hematology and sickle cell care, encouraging guests to donate blood or sign up with Be the Match to become stem cell donors. Contrary to popular belief, selecting “Organ Donor” on one’s driver’s license does not register the person to become a stem cell donor.  Be the Match was on-site, staffed by ATL-based students, with many from Emory including Lisa Mills (Laney PhD: Immunology), Amaka Uzoh and Roberta Gomez (MD program), and Fabrice Bernard (Emory/GT PhD program in Biomedical Engineering). Together these Emory students provided educational materials and collected cheek swabs from potential donors. Twenty-six people signed up to become stem cell donors, partnering with cell therapists worldwide to better treat and cure a variety of hematologic diseases.  Be the Match was elated by this turnout, especially when many of the swabs were from ethnic backgrounds that are under-represented in the registry.

It was an inspiring opportunity where scientists, painters, rappers and clinicians could engage each other in uniquely intersectional conversations, united by the sprit of science and art for social justice.  All proceeds from the evening—$2500—were donated to the the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia to aid their public health outreach activities.  What’s next for Sickle & Flow?  Marika is founding her own 501(c)3, and is planning to host future events where artists and scientists can come together to BE the CURE.  “Caring for patients with chronic disease requires an interdisciplinary team of clinicians, and in sickle transplant, this team must extend to those with African-American blood cells,” said Chris Lewis. “Together, we can all help translate bench-to-bedside research into meaningful social change that saves lives.” 

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Chris Lewis is an MD/PhD student studying immunology at Emory University's School of Medicine.

Edited by: Anzar Abbas and Brindar Sandhu