Jorge and Leslie Bacardi

Paying forward the gift of life

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Imagine a future in which a new lung is grown for a patient in need, using the patient's own cellular material, or a day when an injection of replacement cells will enable a patient to self-heal damage in the brain, nerves or other tissues.

Regenerative medicine is no longer science fiction, and a leadership level gift from Jorge and Leslie Bacardi of the Bahamas will accelerate the research of Mayo Clinic's Center for Regenerative Medicine on the Florida campus.

Jorge Bacardi, whose family has manufactured rum and other spirits for 150 years, suffered since childhood with primary ciliary dyskinesia, a debilitating lung disease that nearly ended his life. A double-lung transplant at Mayo's Florida campus in 2008 enabled him to take his first full breath of air at age 64.

That experience inspired the Bacardis to give back in 2009. They, with other family members, made the lead gift to build the Gabriel House of Care on Mayo Clinic's campus in Jacksonville, Florida, to provide affordable, long-term housing and a supportive environment for visiting transplant and radiation oncology patients.

The facility's name honors Christopher Mark Gregory, who lost his life at age 19, and whose gift of organ donation enabled Jorge to receive his transplant. Before Jorge knew his organ donor by name, he wrote a heartfelt letter of gratitude to the donor family in which he referred to Christopher as "Gabriel," his saving angel.

Leslie and Jorge Bacardi

With their latest gift to regenerative medicine, the Bacardis join Mayo Clinic in writing the next chapter in organ transplantation, as well as advancing new surgical techniques and therapies for conditions that today have no definitive cures.

"Regenerative medicine is an extraordinary step in the evolution of mankind," says Jorge. "It is for Leslie and I a great honor to be able to join Mayo Clinic in the development of such an advancement in the medical field."

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'Mind-boggling' science

Regenerative medicine addresses the root causes of disease and disability by developing ways to rejuvenate the body using its natural self-healing processes, replace damaged cells with healthy ones derived from the patient (avoiding immune system rejection), and regenerate function by applying specific cells or cell products.

Mayo's regenerative medicine researchers are targeting conditions throughout the body, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic injuries that affect combat veterans. Some studies are in the earliest stages. Others are in clinical trials with patients.

Researchers now can differentiate stem cells into skin, brain, lung and many other types of cells. For example, a patient's own skin cells may be collected, reprogrammed in a laboratory to give them certain characteristics, and then delivered back to the patient to treat diseases at various places within the body.

Leslie says the couple was amazed by a segment on ABC's "Nightline," a late-night television news program, which showed beating heart tissue that Mayo Clinic researchers had developed from the skin tissue of one of the program's reporters.

"That, to us, was just mind-boggling," Leslie says. "We really sincerely think that's the future, and Mayo Clinic will make it happen. Think about a patient with Lou Gehrig's disease, or diabetes. Are we going to get rid of that disease for them? I hope so.

"Regenerative medicine is for us an investment in our future and the future of medicine. It may take a while to reap any benefits, but when those benefits do come, it will make the investment seem small. The excitement with which we look forward to the advancement of regenerative medicine will keep us hopeful for solutions to many medical mysteries."

Grateful patients, grateful physicians

The Bacardis' gift establishes the Jorge and Leslie Bacardi Fund in Regenerative Medicine honoring Cesar A. Keller, M.D., the physician who provided care to Jorge before and after his double-lung transplant and who is currently involved in regenerative medicine lung research.

Their gift also will be used to greatly accelerate regenerative medicine work at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, and will establish the Jorge and Leslie Bacardi Associate Director for the Center for Regenerative Medicine in Florida, a position currently held by Thomas A. Gonwa, M.D.

"We are very grateful for the Bacardis' gift, which will accelerate our ability to provide regenerative medicine solutions to patients," says Dr. Gonwa, who is also chair of the Department of Transplantation at Mayo Clinic in Florida. "The Bacardis' generosity will help us transform medical care for people with some of the most difficult-to-treat conditions."

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