Virginia honors legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta LacksMembers of the Henrietta Lacks Commission are to be sworn in and convene for the first time Wednesday, Sept. 26.

Earlier this year, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law the creation of the Henrietta Lacks Commission, a board tasked with developing and implementing a plan to construct a biomedical cancer research and treatment center in Halifax County named in honor of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman and native Virginian whose cells became the first immortal human cell line. The Governor has proclaimed September 23-29 as Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week in Virginia.

“Henrietta Lacks is a hero to us all,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MPH, “a remarkable woman whose cells –taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent in 1951 – have touched each and every one of us and benefitted untold millions around the world. Her cells have not only helped pioneer a multitude of landmark biomedical breakthroughs, they have also poignantly and justly contributed to national discussions on medical ethics, patient consent and the rights over one’s own genetic material and tissue. “

Often referred to as the matriarch of modern medicine, Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy are now the cornerstone of a currently conceived $50 million, 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facility bearing her name and built near her Clover home and final resting place.

Lacks’ descendants, one of whom has been appointed to the Henrietta Lacks Commission, say they knew from the outset that this project aligned with their family’s efforts. “Our mission is to extend our grandmother’s legacy in responsible and powerful ways,” said Jeri Lacks-Whye. “Building the center in her home county, an area of southern Virginia where access to specialized care and research is rare, means a great deal to us. Helping end suffering and provide hope in the battle against cancer and all disease is her true legacy.”

“The Halifax Industrial Development Authority (IDA) created and started promoting the concept for the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center project nearly five years ago,” explained Matt Leonard, IDA Executive Director. “In all that time, our passion for making it a reality never wavered or waned because it is too right and too good an initiative. Meaningful projects like this one require strong collaborations and take time to develop; time that has allowed us to join with equally passionate project partners including Henrietta Lacks’ family, the Lacks Legacy Group, Virginia’s General Assembly, Governor Northam and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). This project will be transformational for Halifax County, the entire Southern Virginia Region, and beyond. It is significant historically, economically and socially.”

“Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to medicine and public health can never be overstated,” said VDH Office of Health Equity Director Lauren Powell, MPA, PhD. “Her story speaks to the dark history of racism in medicine, and medical ethics. The rightful mistrust in medical systems that resulted because of experiences like Henrietta’s still remains pervasive in the African-American community and contributes to health disparities in this population. The concept of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center holds the promise of just that – life. From a woman whose life ended too soon, the whole world ultimately received life from her HeLa cells. Virginia’s move in this direction aims to make sure the lives that benefit from Henrietta Lacks include those in her hometown, those of her community, and those standing in most need. We are excited to bring her legacy home.”

For more information about the commission and the events planned during Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week September 23-29, 2018, go to http://helaweek.vdh.virginia.gov.

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