Bringing Historic Justice to Henrietta Lacks’ Legacy

Scientists working in lab

The concept for a cancer research and treatment center to be located in Halifax County had an unusual beginning….it started with a book on the New York Times bestseller list.

“I learned about Henrietta Lacks from the book that later became a movie,” Halifax County Industrial Development Authority Executive Director Matthew Leonard says. “I was shocked and excited — I live about four miles from Lacks Town.”

Henrietta Lacks, an African-American women living in Clover (Halifax County), was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951; she died that same year. During the course of treatment, her cells, later known as HeLa cells, were taken without her permission. These HeLa cells, the first human cells to reproduce in culture, enabled a new generation of medical research and such innovations as the polio vaccine, cloning and in vitro fertilization.

“In my role as an industrial developer, I thought there must be a way to bring historic justice to Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” Leonard explains.

Leonard envisioned a cancer research and treatment center, the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center, for his county.

“It seemed like a project that would honor the Lacks legacy, improve the health of the people in Halifax and also transform the economy to a certain extent,” he adds.

Translating a Dream into Reality

The next step was to put together a concept plan, business model and governing structure and a suggested list of potential stakeholders and partners.

“A lot of people, including government leaders, political leaders and business leaders said it was a great idea,” Leonard says.

“Someone suggested that we might want to have the family onboard, so I called Dr. Nettie Simon Owens, director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC),” Leonard continues. “Dr. Nettie is a great resource, and she grew up near Lacks Town.”

The SVHEC director arranged a conference call with the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group.

“The family was immediately receptive to our idea,” Leonard says.

The next step was to meet with local legislators, James Edmunds and Bill Stanley.

“Edmunds said we needed to set up a statewide commission empanelled with government leaders and local leaders,” Leonard relates. “The Virginia legislature unanimously approved the commission. I think that’s a real testament to Henrietta Lacks’s legacy.”

What’s Next?

The commission, which will start to meet in July, will work out the details for the $50 million, 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facility that will employ 50 to 100.

The project is centered around a growth industry identified in Region 3’s Growth and Diversification plan – health care – and is an example of the collaboration that GO Virginia seeks to nurture.

What Do Others Have to Learn from this Project?

“This is a great example of a public-private partnership,” Leonard says. “We have economic development, SVHEC, and the family working as partners. Private research institutions and private biotech companies can also be a part of it.”

Leonard believes GO Virginia will help him make connections across the region as his project progresses.

“I think the time is right, the project is right and the people are now in place,” Leonard concludes. “This project has the potential to transform the economy and the workforce. We’re headed in the right direction.”