Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine / Courtesy of The Washington Post
Between today’s economic and political turmoil, employee-employer tensions, and the COVID-19 panic just beginning to subside, it’s no surprise that the conversation about what balances work -healthy living is full of new ideas and controversial lifestyles.
What seems to be missing, however, is everything that really touches on the pinnacle of the ideal: the mythical keystone of “doing a job you love, so as not to work one day in your life”. It was something perfectly embodied by a very dedicated and extremely intelligent scientist, Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Aside from her many accolades and the abundance of influence she left after her death in December 2012, her career could perhaps be best summed up with a quote from Primo Levi’s 1978 novel. The monkey keythat Lévi-Montalcini claimed favored in evoking the work of his life: “If we exclude the prodigious and individual moments that fate presents to us, loving our work (which unfortunately is the privilege of few) is the best concrete definition of happiness on Earth.
This is far from a full description of her passion – the woman herself was a fired pitcher, a research powerhouse focused on her craft. She graduated from medical school in 1936, the same year Mussolini banned non-Aryan Italians from professional or academic careers. Even after the German army crossed into Belgium in early 1940 and the Anglo-American air forces began dropping bombs on his hometown of Turin, Italy, Levi-Montalcini set up a personal research station in his room to pursue his interest in growing nerves. cells. With improvised tools including sharp sewing needles, watchmaker’s pliers, a pair of ophthalmologist’s scissors, a microscope and her expertise, she was able to observe the development and the subsequent decay of nerve cell growth in chickens that had a limb removed by microsurgery during embryonic development, between nightly runs to the bomb shelter across the street.
Although she certainly didn’t stop there, Levi-Montalcini is perhaps best known for her award-winning work in the discovery and isolation of nerve growth factor (NGF) in 1956, for which she and her colleague Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986. This made her the fourth Nobel laureate from Italy’s ancient and well-established Jewish community, and in April 2009 she became the first Nobel laureate to claim the title of centenary.
Exactly what it says on the tin, NGF is a protein that serves to support the development, proliferation, differentiation, and survival of neurons. Levi-Montalcini originally started down the path that would lead to the isolation of NGF by replicating another experiment by Elmer Bueker, Ph.D., in which certain tumors appeared to encourage nearby nerve growth when they were grafted onto chicken embryos. Follow-up experiments with embryos injected with tumor extracts did not yield the same results; however, experiments where a tumor sample was placed near (but not in direct contact with) isolated chicken embryo nerve tissue, or directly on the embryonic membrane itself, exposed excessive growth of nerve cells.
Most notably, this neural development occurred in regions both near and far from the location of the transplanted tumor, even burying itself in blood vessels moving away from the tumor despite the fact that the nerves themselves themselves refrain from establishing direct connections with the tumor cells. In 1954, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen had succeeded in deriving a solution of proteins and nucleic acids from mouse sarcomas that could reliably reproduce the effect of a tumor on nerve growth in culture and were then able to use snake venom to identify and later extract a protein capable of stimulating neuron development – what would then become known as growth factor nervous.
In addition to this truly seminal research in the field, Levi-Montalcini held numerous prescient positions, including as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri from 1958 until his retirement in 1977. During this time, she also created a unit research center in Italy, dividing her efforts between Saint-Louis and Rome, and was director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome from 1969 to 1978, where she became a visiting professor upon her retirement.
Then, in 2001, she returned to the neuroscientific scene with a grand proposal at the annual Ambrosetti Forum: the founding of a neurological research center in Italy. Created in 2002 and fully operational in 2005, the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) favors a rich and collaborative environment for research and study of everything related to neurology, from synapses to behaviors and neurodegenerative diseases.
Lévi-Montalcini’s contributions to science and society do not end there. She participated in the founding of the Fondazione Idis-Città della Scienza, a museum in southern Italy, which is working to build a knowledge-based economy; she was appointed senator for life by then Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi based on her contributions to the scientific community, a post she held until her death in 2012; she became the tenth wife elected from the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1968, followed by a National Medal of Science in 1987.
Her last research project was conceived at the end of 2007, in which she endeavored to study all the additional functions that NGF must have to deserve its presence in an embryo several days before the nervous system begins to grow. Avoiding knockout mouse models that could be used to study the early roles and mechanisms of NGF, Levi-Montalcini instead opted to return to the chicken embryo, for which there were no knockout models. so that she can observe the effects of NGF inhibition at different stages. embryonic development. She treated the embryos with a special anti-NGF antibody derived from a phenotypic NGF knockout mouse model, observing that the embryos failed to rotate their trunk to align with the head and disrupt the symmetrical development of the organic tissues.
She never married, had no children and seems to have repeated her lack of regrets and her deep love For his work. Almost despite her career in the biological sciences, she reportedly held the optimistic view that “life does not end with death. What you pass on to others remains. Immortality is not the body, which will one day die. I don’t care if I die. It doesn’t matter… important is the message you leave to others. It is immortality.
Although nearly a decade has passed since she left the mortal world, in Levi-Montalcini’s own words, she is far from truly leaving those of us who remain here in the world of science.