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Cancer center eyed in Henrietta’s honor

South Boston News / January 08, 2018
Virginia lawmakers and local officials are hoping to establish a cancer science center in Halifax County in honor of Henrietta Lacks, a Clover sharecropper whose role in medical history was brought to light in a best-selling 2010 book that later became the basis for an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

The Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center is envisioned under legislation filed by state Sen. Bill Stanley for the opening of the General Assembly this week. The Franklin County Republican, whose 19th District includes the western half of Halifax County, prefiled the bill at the end of December with Senate co-sponsor Mamie Locke, a Hampton Democrat.

Companion legislation will be introduced in the House of Delegates by Halifax Del. James Edmunds.

The bill calls for creating a new state commission to oversee the development of the Henrietta Life Sciences Center, a cancer research and treatment center located in Halifax County. The public-private partnership would be developed to “transform and accelerate cancer research and treatment through the use of biodata tools” and “provide tailored cancer treatment medicine to an underserved portion of rural Southside Virginia” while fostering new biotech businesses throughout the region.

Proposed partners in the venture include the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority and members of the extended family of Henrietta Lacks and the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group.

Lacks, whose life story was the basis for the 2010 non-fiction bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot, was born in Roanoke but lived most of her childhood and early adulthood in Halifax County. After moving to Baltimore in her early 20s to work in the steel industry, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in 1951 at the age of 31.

Tissue samples taken by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital led to the production of HeLa cells, the first immortalized cell line that became essential to medical research that produced the polio vaccine and numerous other advances. HeLa cells remain in use in scientific research today.

“Henrietta Lacks is an important figure in the world of cancer treatment and biomedical research,” noted a statement by the Halifax County IDA announcing the venture. “She was raised, married and started her family in Halifax County, Virginia, and is buried in a cemetery in the Lacks Town area of the county in Clover, Virginia.” IDA Executive Director Matt Leonard said more information about the proposed life sciences center would be issued this week.

The state commission tasked with forming the center will have a three-year charge to “bring together the stakeholders, their commitments and resources toward the mission, financing, management, operations and successful sustainability of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center,” according to the IDA statement. Stanley’s bill calls for the Henrietta Lacks Commission to sunset in 2021.

The membership of the state commission would be comprised of two legislators appointed by the leadership of the House of Delegates and state Senate; three voting ex officio members drawn from the Halifax County IDA, the SVHEC, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and Town of South Boston, and three nonlegislative citizen members, including a member of the extended Henrietta Lacks family and a representative of the Henrietta Lacs Legacy Group. All members will be citizens of the Commonwealth.

In the state Senate, the bill has been referred to the Rules Committee, on which Stanley and Locke both serve. The General Assembly session opens Wednesday.

On the heels of the popularity of Skloot’s book, HBO Films adapted “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for the small screen, starring Oprah Winfrey in the role of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, whose struggles with poverty and exploitation form the core narrative of the book after the death of the title character.

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