Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist and Nobel Prize laureate for her work in physiology/medicine in 1986. Her most well-known work, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize, is the isolation of the Nerve Growth Factor, a type of protein that stimulates nerve cell growth and greatly influences how certain cancers affect nerve cell growth.
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Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in 1909 in Turin, Italy to a middle-class family as the youngest of 4 children. When she was young, she greatly admired author Selma Lagerlof and aspired to become a writer. After a close friend died of stomach cancer, however, Levi-Montalcini decided to study medicine instead at the University of Turin, where she was taught by neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi. She graduated with an M.D. in 1936 and started work as Giuseppe Levi’s research assistant.
Just a few years before World War II broke out, dictator Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy and passed race laws that banned non-Aryans from the academic professions, forcing Levi-Montalcini to leave her budding career. Not giving up on her research on nerve development, she set up a secret laboratory at home, making surgical tools from what she could find: sharpened sewing needles, for example. She continued studying the nervous system development in chicken embryos in secret throughout the war, even when heavy bombing of cities forced her family to move to the countryside and her to set up another laboratory.
After Italy was liberated near the end of the war, Levi-Montalcini decided to work as a doctor in refugee camps for a time before going back to the University of Turin. In 1946, Levi-Montalcini was invited to Washington University in St. Louis, where she repeated the results of her home experiments. Her research supervisor, Professor Viktor Hamburger, was so impressed with her results from studying the nervous system development in chicken embryos that he offered her a long-term position as research associate there. She eventually became a professor herself.
Developing Nerve Cells
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In 1952, Levi-Montalcini discovered that a mouse tumor had caused cancerous nerve cell growth around it even when grafted onto a chicken embryo. When she adapted the experiment so that the mouse tumor was supplied by only the blood of the chicken embryo, she found the same thing happening. Realizing that a special protein from the tumor was likely causing excessive nerve cell growth, she worked to try to isolate it with biochemist Stanley Cohen. The two succeeded, and were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their discovery of the nerve growth factor, an important protein in the regulation of embryonic cell growth and communication, revolutionized the field of embryology. Levi-Montalcini’s research would later help researchers understand and treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s, developmental malformations and cancer.
In the 1960s, Levi-Montalcini helped establish the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and became the director of the Institute of cell biology in Rome’s National Council of research. She retired in the late 1970s, spending her time doing research on her own, penning books, and running the Levi-Montalcini Foundation for education. For her outstanding contributions to science, the Italian Prime Minister appointed her a Senator for Life. Levi-Montalcini passed away in 2012, at the age of 103.