Pancreatic Cancer Claims The Life of Ben Barres, a Transgender Neurobiologist

According to a story from the Chicago Tribune, Ben Barres, a widely renowned neurobiologist and researcher, passed away at age sixty-three after fighting pancreatic cancer. Mr. Barres was credited with breakthrough discoveries about the structure and functions of the brain. These discoveries contributed to the understanding of how degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s manifest. Barres was a transgender man and was a frequent critic of gender biases in science. His death was disclosed by Stanford University, where Barres served as a neurobiology professor at the medical school.

The pancreas is a glandular organ located behind the stomach, and cancer of the organ easily spreads to other parts of the body. Pancreatic cancer is similar to some other cancer forms because it rarely causes any significant symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. Often, by that juncture, it has spread to other areas of the body. Symptoms of the cancer include pain in the upper abdomen, inexplicable weight loss, appetite loss, and jaundice. Due to the fact that the cancer is rarely detected until it has had time to spread, prognosis is generally poor. To learn more about this disease, click here.

Barres was regarded as one of the most prominent experts on glial cells. Glial cells are among the most commonly found structure in the brain, but their role in brain function was considered a mystery. It was only when Barres began to dive deep into research about them that they began to be understood. This new knowledge revolutionized neurological research.  He began to understand that glial cells were essential to the function of neurons in the brain and helped them form connections to send electrical signals. Barres also realized that a type of glial cells called astrocytes could actually have harmful effects under certain conditions, and contributed to the degenerative activity that occurs during dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Before transitioning to a man, Ben was called Barbara Barres. The experience of being in the scientific field and being treated as both a man and a woman gave Barres a unique perspective. Barres strongly criticized statements by Harvard president Lawrence Summers who explained the lack of women in the sciences as being tied to their “intrinsic aptitude.” Barres refuted the claim in an article where he cited statistics showing equal scores in math and science for boys and girls in controlled studies. After the changes in treatment he received after transitioning to a man, Barres was convinced that there were significant barriers to women who wanted to enter the sciences. The willingness of male Harvard professors to defend president Summers’ statements seem to affirm his suspicions.


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