Neuroscience awards named in honor of Ben Barres

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a Palo Alto-based philanthropic organization, has launched a major research effort to inject fresh energy, ideas and talent into understanding the basic biology of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the organization announced Feb. 20.

The research will be funded through two programs, including one that will support early career investigators willing to pursue bold, innovative ideas. These five-year awards, known as the CZI Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards, are named in honor of Ben Barres, PhD, a distinguished Stanford neuroscientist who died in December at the age of 63.

CZI will also fund a series of collaborative science awards — three-year grants for small, interdisciplinary groups of scientists, clinicians and engineers working together on innovative high-risk, high-impact projects in basic science.

Both grant programs are part of CZI’s new Neurodegeneration Challenge Network, which aims to fill in the gaps in the still-limited understanding of the basic cellular and molecular mechanisms behind these devastating illnesses.

Cori Bargmann, PhD, president of Chan Zuckerberg Science, said the group chose to name the young investigator awards in Barres’ honor because he was “a spiritual guide” for the work. An advocate for basic science and for the mentorship of young researchers, Barres had been an adviser to CZI since its inception in 2015 and had a hand in helping craft the awards program, Bargmann said.

‘Exceptional scientist and human being’

“Ben was a truly exceptional scientist and human being. He exemplified the values of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, especially our work in neurodegenerative disease. His commitment to collaboration between basic science and medicine, his creative work in neurodegeneration, and his advocacy for women, underrepresented groups and young scientists inspire us all,” Bargmann said.

Barres made significant discoveries about the role of glial cells, the under-recognized cells that comprise the majority of brain cells, and in doing so revolutionized the field of neuroscience. A professor of neurobiology, of developmental biology and of neurology, he was widely praised for the passion he brought to his work.

Barres was particularly known for his dedication to his trainees and was a champion for basic science, helping establish the Master of Science in Medicine program at Stanford to teach PhD students about human biology and disease and thus prepare them to turn new discoveries into clinically useful treatments.

“Ben was a selfless and steadfast champion of young researchers. As his colleague and friend, I am moved that these awards will commemorate him and continue his legacy of celebrating and supporting early-career scientists,” said neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, president of Stanford University.

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said the awards “are an inspired way to honor the memory of Ben, a remarkable person and a beloved mentor who embodied the spirit of the awards in his brilliance, creativity and passion for neuroscience.”

The CZI Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards are open to scientists from throughout the world working in a variety of disciplines. The awards are open to MDs and PhDs who are new to the field of neurodegeneration. Awardees will receive $500,000 a year for five years, for a total of $2.5 million. The collaborative science awards will provide recipients with $350,000 a year for three years, or a total of $1.05 million.

CZI was founded by Silicon Valley couple Priscilla Chan, MD, and Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, to advance science, education and social justice. One of CZI’s first initiatives was the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, an independent nonprofit research center supported by $600 million over a 10-year period. The center brings together physicians, scientists and engineers at Stanford, UC-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley to engage in innovative scientific exploration and invent new tools to advance discoveries.

Information about the awards is available online.