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Sax and medicine

A profile of reed player and researcher Andy McKee


Mook McKee, said the big black letters on the white T-shirt on the slim chest of the yellow-haired guy playing the saxophone. Behind him a band swung to a jazz beat, or maybe the jazz beat swung the band, as arts-lovers crowded into the Durham Arts Council building on a recent weekend night. All the white T-shirts in the band bore the mysterious phrase: Mook McKee.

Who is Mook? He is one of the myriad incarnations of one Andy McKee, a 20-something fourth-year medical student at Duke and an around-town jazz composer and performer, whose mind works like this:

How do you make new music? You take old-school jazz and wrap it in hip hop, samba, gospel and R&B. You summon the guys in the band. You experiment on the sax and clarinet and drums and trumpet; you make up a line here and a riff there.

You watch the iconic 1959 movie Black Orpheus, the bringer of Samba to American ears and hips, the all-black remake of the heaven-and-hell Orpheus and Eurydice story, poetically filmed in Brazil. You stay up late and talk about it, and that fire of inspiration shoots up your brain. Then, you are making music, new music--your music.

What do you do after deciding to ditch the Ph.D. part of the Ph.D./M.D. program you were pursuing at Duke? You take six months off and gig, gig, gig. You play local art galleries, weddings, fraternity parties, downtown bars--everywhere. You write music like mad.

Meanwhile, in the labs of Duke Medical School, for two years straight, you think about something else. You, your boss and your co-workers are trying to grow a human artery in a Petri dish. They will be used as spare blood vessels for bypass surgery, to help people with heart disease and clogged arteries gain a new route for blood to reach the heart.

It is a new idea--the kind that makes your heart speed up. Your boss has pioneered the process of taking cells from a pig's blood vessels, growing the cells into an artery in her lab, then transplanting the new artery back into the pig. The potential medical uses for such a discovery are vast.

But there is a problem: When trying to make a human artery with human cells, they don't want to grow for very long outside the body. The blood vessels they form are thin-walled and flimsy.

This is where you can pioneer something. This is what you do best. Day after day you go to the lab after class and experiment with the human cells. You add a certain gene. Finally, it works. The vessels become more healthy and grow for a longer time.

In part because of your work, your lab is able to grow four arteries. Your paper on the breakthrough process is published in Nature magazine.

If the blood vessels are proven to be safe, and to be able to withstand millions of cycles of blood being pumped to the heart, then heart patients could see a benefit. So could people whose circulation problems lead to amputation, and kidney patients who could use artificial arteries to connect them to dialysis machines.

Music and medicine: both are meat for McKee. "The common thread between music and science is this hunger for being on the cusp of new and innovative things," he says, as he relaxes on a coffeehouse couch on Ninth Street, his scrubs exchanged for jeans and a T-shirt, the morning after an all-day rotation at Duke Hospital.

Yet there's a difference. In music, McKee says, you get attached to your ideas. "My tunes are about some emotional, intense event in my life." But in science, "it's like, well, I thought that my idea was cool about a week ago, but now let's try to find 10 ways to destroy my own idea." In the lab, he might say, "Is that really the best way to approach that experiment?"

He loves the music--he wrote three songs over the weekend. But it's the science, the medicine, that he sees himself making his mark in.

"There's nothing comparable to [contributing to] a therapy that's going to help save peoples' lives, or a diagnostic test that works better on cancer."

Andy McKee plays most Saturdays from 8-11 p.m. at Vin Rouge in Durham. To listen to his latest compositions, visit .

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