Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103, died in Rome on Sunday in her home. The Nobel laureate helped discover cellular processes that isolated how nerve cells grow. She and Dr. Stanley Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Both Levi-Montalcini and Cohen studied at Washington University in St. Louis for decades, according to the New York Times.
* The hormone the pair discovered is known as nerve growth factor. The biochemical signals other nearby developing cells whether or not to grow a nerve in the process. The discovery, made in the 1950s, helped scientists better understand diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
* Levi-Montalcini's family stayed in Italy despite the possibility of persecution because of her Jewish heritage. She began studying chicken embryos in her bedroom in 1938 after the professor lost her job as a research assistant, according to the Associated Press. Italy's fascist regime banned Jews from university professions.
* It was during these embryo experiments that Levi-Montalcini developed her idea on how cells work regarding neural generation. She continued her work after World War II ended, which eventually led to important medical discoveries.
* The professor was invited to the United States in 1947 where she worked at Washington University for 30 years. Levi-Montalcini's inspiration for her work, Dr. Viktor Hamburger, offered her a research associate job at the university in September 1947. The young woman had planned to stay just 12 months but eventually earned U.S. citizenship and remained with the research university until 1977.
* Levi-Montalcini called her years in St. Louis "the happiest and most productive" of her life, according to the AP story. Her discovery showed tumors from mice, when put into chicken embryos, induced rapid growth of embryonic nerves. The researcher concluded cancer cells released a hormone that promotes nerve growth in surrounding cells.
* The initial discovery of nerve growth factor led to discoveries of epidermal growth factor and other substances that promote growth-relating hormones, according to the Los Angeles Times. Levi-Montalcini and her colleagues created an entirely new field of cellular biology with their research in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to new therapies for diseases and disorders.
* Levi-Montalcini was born April 22, 1909, in Turin, Italy as the youngest of four children. Her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and mathematician. Her mother, Adele Montalcini, was a painter. The Nobel laureate retired in 1977 after several decades in St. Louis. She also held the title of director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research from 1969 to 1978. Levi-Montalcini founded her own research institute in 1962.
William Browning, a lifelong Missouri resident, writes about local and state issues for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Born in St. Louis, Browning earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Missouri. He currently resides in Branson.
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