Halifax County is on track to become the home of a cutting-edge biomedical research and cancer treatment center, offering cancer treatment to rural southern Virginia residents who typically do not have access to that level of care.

The living cells of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman and Halifax County native who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31, are at the heart of the cancer treatment and research center bearing her name — the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center.

The Henrietta Lacks Commission is charged with making the life science center near Lacks’ birthplace a reality. The commission met virtually via Zoom conference call on Tuesday, and discussed a three-year strategic plan.

Joy D. Calloway, a professional speaker and interim executive director of Planned Parenthood of New York, led the meeting. The commission was established by the governor and Virginia legislature in July 2018 with the passage of Senate Bill 171.

“Our vision, when we are at the pinnacle of our success, is that southern Virginians will live free of cancer as a result of the Halifax County Life Science Center’s research, treatment and commercialization of new therapies,” Calloway said.

That vision could become a reality thanks to the visit of the daughter of a Clover tobacco farmer to Johns Hopkins Hospital decades ago. Henrietta Lacks unknowingly donated her cells to medical research after having her cancerous cells extracted during a biopsy.

Scientists observing Lacks’ cells found that rather than dying, the cells continued to multiply. In fact, Lacks’ cells, nicknamed “HeLa cells” in her honor, continue to live on today.

They have been used to learn more about the way viruses operate, the long-term effects of radiation, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine. Her cells also provided the basis for in-vitro fertilization, gene mapping and other medical breakthroughs.

Lacks’ story is compelling, and as Calloway pointed out, if a story is compelling enough, people will be willing to fund the project behind the story.

She noted that one of the key strategies for bringing the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center from vision to reality is securing additional, sustainable funding sources for the center.

Rev. Alfred Chandler, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church, the church where Lacks was baptized, agreed sharing Lacks’ story is crucial.

“No matter what we do, we have to tell our story,” Chandler said.

At the time that Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital, it was one of the few hospitals that treated economically underprivileged African-Americans and very little medical research existed in the African-American community.

One of the goals of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center is to help bridge the gap in medical/ cancer treatment services that still exists for African-Americans living in rural areas.

David Sanders shared on Tuesday’s Zoom call that is the goal that compels him to be a part of the work of the Henrietta Lacks Commission.

Sanders, who is African-American, related that he is a cancer survivor and learned about Lacks when he was preparing for surgery for his cancer. He also noted the gaps in cancer research among African-Americans.

“They did not have accurate data on African Americans. That is a critical problem in our community,” Sanders said.

Addressing the landscape of current cancer research and conducting an assessment to determine the scope of service/ program needs/ gaps in the target demographic are part of the three-year strategic plan for the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center, Calloway shared with the group in the Zoom call.

Calloway also stressed the importance of setting the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center apart from other cancer research centers around the nation and even more, making the life science center a nationally renowned leader in its field.

“We want to position the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center as the convener of organizations serving in/ interested in cancer research and treatment in black, rural communities,” Calloway shared during the commission’s meeting.

To that end, she said community engagement and championship of the center would be critical to its success.

“We have to make this a community thing so that everybody feels a part of this,” Calloway commented.

Aside from securing sustainable funding sources, engaging the community and finding champions for the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center, establishing a well-trained staff for the center including an executive director is another major goal in the commission’s three-year strategic plan, Calloway said.

Dr. Nettie Simon-Owens, vice-chair of the commission, emphasized the need for the commission to move from the planning to the action phase of the creation of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center after finalizing the strategic plan during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

A legislative bill that may buy the Henrietta Lacks Commission some more time to establish the life science center is on the docket for the special session of the Virginia legislature, Jasmine Smith, executive administrator for the Virginia Department of Health – Office Of Health Equity, shared with commission members. The bill, SB 1414, extends the sunset provision (expiration) of the Henrietta Lacks Commission from July 1, 2021 to July 1, 2026.

The commission is hopeful that the bill will pass, allowing them time to execute their strategic plan for the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center.

“We knew that we could not go from concept to facility without a strategic plan and community engagement,” Simon-Owens explained.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.