In 1951, a young mother of five was laid to rest in a small family cemetery on a dead end back road in Halifax County. Her family was so poor that for many years no headstone even marked her grave.
In death, though, that unheralded young woman has become two remarkable things — important and, in a way, immortal.
The 2010 best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” made her famous, as well.
Lacks was born in Roanoke in 1920. When she was 4, her mother died in childbirth and her father moved the family to Halifax County where the nine children were distributed among relatives. Lacks grew up in a two-room log cabin that had once been quarters for enslaved ancestors. By 21, she was married and living in Baltimore. By 31, she was dead of cervical cancer. That is where her life ended, but her story was only beginning. Without her consent, researchers at Johns Hopkins University “harvested” cells from her body, some before her death, some in the autopsy room.
Researchers soon discovered something unusual about them: They wouldn’t die. They kept replicating endlessly. Researchers were fascinated, and clamored for these “immortal” cells. Jonas Salk used some in developing his polio vaccine. In the decades to come, more than 11,000 medical patents owe their origin to these cells. Doubtless many lives have been saved. Certainly millions of dollars have been made. The New York Times says this is the “most prolific and widely used human cell line in biology.” By some estimates, more than 50 tons of cells have been grown from the ones originally taken from Lacks’ body. All this, of course, came as quite a surprise to the Lacks family when they learned about this decades later — which raises all sorts of questions about consent and compensation.
A few years ago, Matt Leonard read the book by Rebecca Skloot (later turned into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey) and was shocked. His wife’s family grew up only a few miles away from Lacks’ gravesite in Halifax County and, like most people, he’d never heard of her. “I was ashamed of not knowing that local history,” he says. “My first thought was, ‘What can I do about this?’ ”
For some, that’s meant the headstone that now recognizes Lacks and her contribution to science. For others, that meant the historical marker that now stands near the intersection of U.S. 360 and Clover Road. For still others, it’s the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week, which Gov. Ralph Northam has proclaimed for Sept. 23-29.
Leonard, though, had a very different idea. He is executive director of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, and so thinks in terms of how to bring new jobs to his rural county. His idea was a grand one: What if a world-class medical research center dedicated to cancer research could be built in Halifax County? And, of course, named after Henrietta Lacks?
On the one hand, this seemed somewhat preposterous. World-class medical research centers aren’t in rural areas. But Leonard persisted. He mustered statistics showing that Southside Virginia in general — and Halifax County, in particular — has higher rates of cancer than other parts of Virginia. He went to Maryland to meet with the Lacks family and came back with their blessing to use her name. Then, last September, he met with the state senator who represents Halifax County — Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. As excited as Leonard was by the idea, Stanley was even more so. Leonard had a concept; Stanley had a plan. The state needed to create a commission to make the Henrietta Lacks Life Sciences Center a reality. “Matt’s eyes got big,” Stanley recalls. “He said, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘Of course, I can do that.’ ” Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, the legislation creating the Henrietta Lacks Commission. (Del. James Edmund, R-Halifax, sponsored the bill on the House side.)
On Wednesday, the nine members of the commission were sworn in. Today in Halifax County, they get down to business. That business is both simple and daunting: Figure out how to build a medical research center in rural Southside. Leonard guesses it will cost at least $50 million but nobody really knows. This idea starts from scratch.
The proponents envision grand things. Leonard talks about how the proposed center would create an entirely new economic sector in the county. Stanley calls it “a game changer for Halifax in terms of economic development.” Dr. Lauren Powell, who runs the Office of Health Equity for the Virginia Department of Health, calls it “a blueprint for this state, other states and perhaps internationally” for how to bring health research into an underserved area.
It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. We in Virginia tend to think of Southside as being, well, out in the middle of nowhere. In Virginia terms, perhaps it is. But if you pull back and take a wider view, you’ll see that parts of Southside are actually on the outer fringes of the fast-growing Raleigh-Durham metro area.
Danville is increasingly pitching itself to tech companies in Raleigh who are looking for cheaper quarters, in much the same way that localities on the fringes of Northern Virginia market themselves as a lower-cost alternative to the pricey Dulles corridor. Leonard thinks Halifax could easily do the same.
South Boston is just 66 miles from the Raleigh airport. When it comes to recruiting talent, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute sometimes struggles with the fact that Roanoke doesn’t have direct flights to a lot of major cities. Halifax might actually be better positioned in terms of air travel.
Halifax also has something else: It has permission to use the Lacks name. That alone helps attract attention. “I believe Henrietta Lacks is an angel who has been delivered to us,” Stanley says. “We need to give back to her memory; that will make that center one of the most important cancer centers in the United States.”
Of course it has to be built first, but the commission goes into this with great optimism. “We’re not going to dawdle,” Stanley vows. “These commissions we form are not for show. They need to have a bright line strategy and a plan of execution to make sure we are just not sitting around talking about something, but creating a plan of attack to achieve a goal.”
That plan of attack begins today.