An Italian and American biologist, Rita Levi-Montalcini (born 1909) discovered the nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein molecule that enhances differentiative processes of the sensory and sympathetic neurons and may exert a modulatory role on neuro-immuno-endocrine functions of vital importance in the regulation of homeostatic processes.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy, on April 22, 1909. Together with her twin sister Paola, a renowned painter, she was the youngest in an upper-middle-class non-observant Jewish family which included a stern, industrialist father, a gentle but resourceful mother, a son, and three daughters, all of whom were gifted in either artistic or scientific pursuits. The profound gender inequality in her parents' household persuaded Rita (and Paola) that raising a family was incompatible with the devotion needed to pursue the call of creativity by a woman. The twin sisters were vindicated in their choice as each became famous in her respective career, while never regretting the choice of staying single. The close bond between them, as well as that between Rita and their mother, may have supplied a lifelong emotional reservoir, one which most people, creative or otherwise, seek to fill via the more conventional avenue of forming their own families.
In 1936 Levi-Montalcini obtained the M.D. degree, with distinction, from the University of Turin, and served there as an assistant in neurobiology in the clinic headed by the professor of anatomy Giuseppe Levi until 1938. Then the passage of the racial laws by the Fascist régime that barred Jews from Italian universities and other public institutions forced her to continue her research first in a Belgian laboratory and, after the outbreak of World War II, in a makeshift laboratory in her refuge home outside Turin. During the German invasion of northern Italy, she resided clandestinely in Florence (1943-1944), eventually becoming in 1944 a volunteer physician with the Allied Forces there. In 1945 she resumed her career as assistant to Professor Giuseppe Levi, who as an outspoken anti-Fascist scientist had also been in hiding during the war while working on the study of nerve cells grown in vitro.
In the fall of 1946, Levi-Montalcini arrived for a one-term research visit in the Department of Zoology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, while responding to an invitation from its chairman, Professor Viktor Hamburger, a pioneer of experimental embryology. Hamburger had noticed her follow-up, in a paper published in 1939 during her stay in Belgium, of transplantation experiments in neuroembryology that he had published in 1934 while still in Germany as an assistant of Hans Spemann, an experimental embryologist who received the Nobel Prize in 1935. Hamburger, a refugee scientist from Nazi Germany who settled in St. Louis in 1937, suggested that they reinvestigate together the topic of the regulatory mechanisms governing the development and differentiation of motor and sensory nerve cells or, in experimental terms, the effects of amputation on the development of the nervous centers in charge of the innervation of the excised limbs in the chick embryo. Shortly after her arrival in Hamburger's laboratory, Rita observed in histological sections of chick embryos various differentiative processes of the nervous system, such as active migration, elimination, and separation of cell populations. These observations convinced her of the ultimate solvability of the then almost uncharted mechanisms of neurogenesis.
Inspired by the preliminary results of experiments with transplantation of neoplastic tissues, which a former student of Hamburger reported in a letter while seeking further advice, Levi-Montalcini focused her work on two tumors that had the capacity to greatly stimulate the proliferation of nerve fibers in host embryos. She eventually concluded that the effect was "radically different" than that observed following transplantation of normal limb buds or other embryonal tissues. She further deduced that the tumor exercised a neurotropic effect by releasing a humoral or fluid factor able to accelerate differentiative processes in sympathetic and, to a lesser degree, sensory cells, as well as to cause excessive and precocious production and abnormal distribution of nerve fibers.
In order to convince potential objectors of the humoral effect of neoplastic tissues on nerve cells, Levi-Montalcini decided to conduct these experiments in vitro. For that purpose she traveled to the Institute of Biophysics in Rio de Janeiro where a former collaborator of Giuseppe Levi, the German refugee Hertha Meyer, set up an in vitro culture unit. In Rio Levi-Montalcini conducted the experiments that would determine the direction of all her future research, while following the in vitro impact of tumor and non-tumor released humoral factors on proliferation and differentiation of cells of various origins.
The most exciting phase in Levi-Montalcini's research came upon her return to Hamburger's laboratory where the arrival of biochemist Stan Cohen as a research associate provided her with a like-minded collaborator. Their complementary skills enabled them in the following six years (1953-1959), especially after discovering that snake venom and mouse salivary glands were richer sources of nerve growth factor (NGF), to characterize NGF both biologically and chemically. Their further use of immunological methods demonstrated the fundamental role of NGF in differentiation and survival of sympathetic cells.
In 1961 Levi-Montalcini, who had become full professor at Washington University in 1958, began a commuting life divided between her newly established Center of Neurobiology in Rome and Washington University in St. Louis where she continued to teach. In 1969 the Italian National Research Council (CNR or Consilio Nazionale de la Richerche) transformed her research unit, previously attached to an Institute of Public Health, into an official CNR research center called the Laboratory of Cell Biology. In addition to neurobiology, it also included departments of cell biology, physiological genetics, and immunology. Between 1979, when Levi-Montalcini retired as director of this laboratory, and 1989, when she became guest professor at CNR's Institute of Neurobiology in Rome, she continued to work in the Laboratory of Cell Biology as a guest researcher.
Advances leading to an upsurge in NGF research in the 1990s include the identification and synthesis of the genes coding for murine and human NGF by means of recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering. Other recent advances include the realization that the spectrum of action of the NGF molecule is not restricted to stimulating the differentiation of the sensory and sympathetic neuronal cell lines but also includes the hemopoietic-immune system, the cholinergic system of the basal forebrain nuclei, and other cell populations in the central nervous system involved in neuroendocrine functions.
The rise in the biological relevance of NGF in the 1980s also led, after a period of relatively modest reception, to a reevaluation of Levi-Montalcini's research in the 1950s. In 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine with Stan Cohen. Levi-Montalcini received honorary citizenship of many towns and cities, including Rome and Turin, and numerous awards in Europe and America, including membership in the U.S. Academy of Sciences (1968), the Pontifical Academy (1974), the Italian National Academy "dei Lincei" (1976), the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine (1979), and the French Academy of Sciences (1989). She was also the recipient of many honorary degrees, from the University of Uppsala, Sweden; Weitzman Institute of Science, Israel; the University of London; the University of Brazil; and Harvard, among others. In 1987 she was awarded the highest honor for an American scientist, the national medal of Science.
Levi-Montalcini remains active in the scientific community, upholding status as professor emeritus at Washington University since 1977, as well as contributing greatly to scientific studies and programs in her native country of Italy. Since winning the Nobel Peace prize she has also been appointed president of the Italian Multiple Sclerosis Association. Levi-Montalcini also established fame as the first woman to attain full membership to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome. She still continues research at the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. Along with her sister, they have established educational youth programs that provide counseling and grants for teenagers interested in the arts or sciences.
The best source on Rita Levi-Montalcini is her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, My Life and Work, translated by Luigi Attardi (1988). On her work, see her writings "NGF: An uncharted route" in F. G. Worden and others, editors, The Neurosciences: Paths of Discovery (1975), and "The Nerve Growth Factor: Its Mode of Action on Sensory and Sympathetic Nerve Cells" in The Harvey Lectures, Series 60 (1966). See also Viktor Hamburger, The Heritage of Experimental Embryology: Hans Spemann and the Organizer (1988). Additional information can be found in the series "New Hopes, New dreams" by Roger Rosenblatt Time (August 1996). □
Italian-American neurologist 1909-
Rita Levi-Montalcini, born in Turin, Italy, is a prominent neurologist who discovered nerve-growth factor (NGF), a substance that controls how many cells make up the adult nervous system. This 1952 discovery has become an important clue to how life starts as a single embryonic cell and then marvelously differentiates into a complex organism made up of many different cell types. Levi-Montalcini's work has also contributed to the understanding of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, tissue regeneration , and the mechanisms of cancer.
Before the discovery of NGF, little was known about how organs signal developing nerve cells to link up with them or how messenger chemicals tell nerve cells when to grow and when to stop growing. Scientists now know of several hundred signals that affect cells and organs, and growth factors can be used to speed up burn healing and to diminish the side effects of the chemotherapy and radiation therapy that are used to combat cancer.
Levi-Montalcini's discovery of NGF and her other scientific work are nothing short of remarkable considering her tumultuous life circumstances. Her childhood was dominated by an unreasonable father who refused to acknowledge her love of science. Rather than encouraging her to pursue science and math courses, he insisted Levi-Montalcini attend finishing school where, much to her disgust, she had to study childcare, etiquette, and marriage. After completing finishing school, and largely against her father's wishes, Levi-Montalcini hired a tutor to teach her math, science, Latin, and Greek for eighteen months until she was able to pass the entrance exam to the University of Turin medical school. In 1936 she completed medical school, specializing in neurology and psychiatry.
After graduation, Levi-Montalcini accepted a research position at the university. After only three short years, she was forced to leave when the fascist anti-Semitic laws that governed Italy at the time drove her away. Not to be deterred, Levi-Montalcini constructed a crude home laboratory using scrap materials and continued her research under secretive conditions. After World War II, she moved to the United States where she continued her research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1947 to 1981. In 1981 she returned to Italy, where she still lives.
In 1986 Levi-Montalcini was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, an award she shares with her American coworker at Washington University, the biochemist Stanley Cohen. She is also the founder of the Laboratory of Cellular Biology, one of the largest biological research centers in Italy.
Stephanie A. Lanoue
McGrayne, Sharon. Nobel Prize Women in Science. Chicago: Birch Lane Press, 1996.
Random House Webster's Dictionary of Scientists. New York: Random House, 1997.
LEVI-MONTALCINI, RITA (1911– ), neurobiologist, Nobel Prize winner. Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy and grew up in Turin. She earned her degree in medicine at the University of Turin where she was employed until 1939 when she was barred by the Fascists from practicing medicine and from working in the university. Undaunted she continued her cell research by conducting experiments in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom with embryos from eggs which she had begged for to feed "needy children." Since she was a member of the "Jewish race," the results of the experiments could not be published in fascist Italy, but they did appear in Belgium, establishing her scientific reputation. The family fled to Belgium, but with Hitler's invasion of the country in 1940 returned to Italy. They hid in Florence under the name "Lovisato," claiming to be southern Italians – with a northern accent. In 1947 Levi-Montalcini accepted a teaching and research position at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, with Professor Viktor Hamburger. There in June 1951 she made the discovery for which she and Dr. Stanley *Cohen, who worked with her at that time, were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for medicine, the isolation of the nerve growth factor (ngf), a protein which stimulates the growth of sensory and sympathetic nerves in animals and in cultures.
Levi-Montalcini, who holds both United States and Italian citizenship, returned to Italy in 1977 to head a research laboratory of the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome. She was the first woman elected to the Pontifical Academy of Science and the sixth woman to be accepted into the National Academy of Sciences (1968). In addition to the Nobel Prize, Levi-Montalcini received the Feltrinelli International Prize in medicine in 1969, the St. Vincent Prize in 1980, and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for 1986.
LEVI-MONTALCINI, Rita. Italian, b. 1909. Genres: Medicine/Health. Career: University of Turin, Turin, Italy, assistant professor of anatomy, 1945-47; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, resident associate in Institute of Zoology, 1947-56, associate professor, 1956-58, professor, 1958-77, emeritus professor of neurobiology, 1977-; Institute of Neurobiology, National Research Council, Rome, Italy, founder and director. Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, 1986. Publications: Elogio dell'imperfezione (autobiography), 1987, trans by L. Attardi published as In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work, 1988; Reti: Scienza, cultura, economia, 1993; Il tuo futurom, 1993. Address: Institute of Neurobiology, National Research Council, Viale Marx 15, 00156 Rome, Italy.