Rita Levi-Montalcini and the Nerve Growth Factor

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009, photo: Quirinale.it, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012) 

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.

“In life one should never give in, surrender oneself to mediocrity, but rather move out of that grey area where everything is habit and passive resignation. One has to grow the courage to rebel”
– Rita Levi-Montalcini, in an interview with Paolo Giordano, 100 anni di futuro, Wired, n. 1, marzo 2009.

Family and Early Life

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born on 22 April 1909 in Turin, Italy. Rita and her twin sister Paola Levi-Montalcini (1909-2000), a well-known artist, came from a Sephardic family. Her parents were the Jewish engineer and mathematician Adamo Levi and his wife Adele Montalcini.

It is believed that she admired the works of Selma Lagerlöf [4] and initially considered becoming a writer herself. However, when her nanny Giovanna became incurably ill with stomach cancer, 19-year-old Rita Levi decided to study medicine 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 to focus on neurological basic research. 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. She moved to Belgium and worked as a visiting scientist at a neurobiological institute in Brussels.

Research during World War II

“It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain, and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.”
– Rita Levi-Montalcini

Shortly before the German invasion, she moved back to Italy to 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 in a refugee camp in Northern Italy, dealing with epidemics of infectious diseases and abdominal typhoid. Here, however, she noticed that the work was not suitable for her, as she could not build the necessary personal detachment from the pain of the patients.

Isolating the Nerve Growth Factor

When 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 then offered a research associate position, which she held for 30 years. During 1952, Levi-Montalcini in collaboration with her biochemical student Stanley Cohen 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 influential work. She transferred pieces of tumors to chicken 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.  This research has been of fundamental importance for the understanding of the growth of cells and organs and plays a significant role in the understanding of cancer and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease

Further Achievements and the Nobel Prize

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 in Rome 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. Levi-Montalcini earned a Nobel Prize along with Stanley Cohen in 1986 in the physiology or medicine category. The two earned their Nobel Prizes for their research in to the nerve growth factor (NGF), the protein that causes cell growth due to stimulated nerve tissue.

In the 1990s, she was one of the first scientists pointing out the importance of the mast cell in human pathology. In the same period (1993), she identified the endogenous compound palmitoylethanolamide as an important modulator of this cell. Rita Levi-Montalcini never married and had no children. In a 2006 interview she said: “I never had any hesitation or regrets in this sense… My life has been enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests. I have never felt lonely.” She died in her home in Rome on 30 December 2012 at the age of 103.

History of Neuroscience: Rita Levi-Montalcini, [6]

References and Further Reading:

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