Group gets to work on biomedical facility named after Virginia’s Henrietta Lacks


RICHMOND, Va. — A state commission that’s planning a biomedical cancer research and treatment facility named after Henrietta Lacks is set to meet this Wednesday for the first time.

Lacks’ cells were collected when she was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer in the 1950’s. The cells are the source of the HeLa cell line and are able to survive outside the body in a lab, given in the right conditions. They’re immortalized.

“Modern medicine wouldn’t be where it is if it weren’t for what she’s graciously given to us,” Dr. Andrew Poklepovic of VCU’s Massey Cancer Center said.

Lacks never gave consent to have her cells used this way. Her family was also never compensated for their use. Lacks died in 1951 before seeing how she changed the world.  These cells have since been used to develop the HPV vaccine, which some say could have saved Lacks.

Poklepovic says if we didn’t have the HeLa cell line, it would have taken years to develop so many life-saving vaccines and treatments that have been developed.

As a researcher, Poklepovic says the greatest goal it to help somebody that he never gets to meet.

“That will mean that what I’ve done will have been adopted by somebody else to help someone that I didn’t know about – [Lacks] has been able to do that,” he added.

Virginia is now working to honor Lacks’ contributions to science. Governor Ralph Northam formed a the Henrietta Lacks Commission, which is tasked to develop a plan for a new biomedical cancer research and treatment facility in Lack’s home county of Halifax.

While its first meeting is on Wednesday, there have been talks about the facility for five years. The current concept for the facility could cost about $50 million to build, according to the Dept. of Health.

“Southern Virginia has a significantly higher incidence of certain types of cancer than other places in the country and to be able to research some of those there using the HeLa cell or to perhaps find a cure or better therapies will help transform the healthcare of southern Virginia as well,” Matt Leonard, the Executive Director of the Halifax Industrial Development Authority and a commission member said.

Members of the commission and the Dept. of Health hope this will bring more economic opportunity to the county as well as life-saving treatments.

“Once you spark one thing, then many things follow after that,” Dr. Lauren Powell, the Director of the Office of Health Equity at Virginia Department of Health.

Dr. Powell has a unique connection to Lacks. She was working at Johns Hopkins University when the book about Lacks was published. That’s the same hospital that Lacks was undergoing cancer treatment when her cells were taken. 

“There are many unsung heroes in medicine and public health. Many of them African American and many of them women. I think that this is a historic moment that we should not overlook,” Powell said.

Family members of Lacks are taking part in the commission. There will be a number of meetings where the public can share their thoughts on the facility as well. Commission hopes to break ground by 2020, as the group is only supposed to meet until June of 2021.

This is also Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week across the Commonwealth. Here’s a list of other events happening this week. 

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