Rita Levi-Montalcini and the Nerve Growth Factor

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009

On December 30, 2011, Italian neurologist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away. Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF), which stimulates and influences both the normal and abnormal the growth of nerve cells in the body.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on 22 April 1909 in Turin. It is believed that she admired the works of Selma Lagerlöf and initially considered becoming a writer herself. However, it is assumed that the death of a family friend who suffered from stomach cancer caused her to enroll at the University of Turin Medical School. There, neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi sparked her interest in the developing nervous system. After graduating with a summa cum laude M.D. in 1936 she remained at the university as Levi’s assistant. Unfortunately, her academic career was cut short by Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers.

During the Second World War, Rita Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. The Nazis invaded Italy in 1943 and her family fled towards Florence where she was able to set up a second laboratory in a corner of their shared living space. Further, Levi-Montalcini is believed to have volunteered her medical expertise for the Allied health service.

Whe the war was finally over, the family moved back to Turin and the scientist was granted a one-semester research fellowship in the laboratory of Professor Viktor Hamburger at Washington University in St. Louis. Levi-Montalcini managed to replicate the results of her home laboratory experiments and she was ten offered a research associate position, which she held for 30 years. During 1952, Levi-Montalcini was able to isolate nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells., which became her most infulential work. She transferred pieces of tumors to chick embryos and established a mass of cells that was full of nerve fibers. The discovery of nerves growing everywhere like a halo around the tumor cells was surprising. The nerves took over areas that would become other tissues and even entered veins in the embryo. But nerves did not grow into the arteries, which would flow from the embryo back to the tumor. This suggested to Montalcini that the tumor itself was releasing a substance that was stimulating the growth of nerves.

In 1958, Rita Levi-Montalcini was made a full professor and established a second laboratory in Rome four years later. In the 1960s she directed the Research Center of Neurobiology of the CNR and the Laboratory of Cellular Biology. After retiring in 1977, she was appointed as director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome. In 2002, Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute and served as its president.

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