Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Winner, Dies at 103
Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer, died on Sunday at her home in Rome. She was 103.
Born on 22 April 1909 at Turin to an Italian Jewish family, together with her twin sister Paola she was the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a painter.
In her teenage years, she considered becoming a writer and admired Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. Adamo discouraged his children from attending college as he feared it would disrupt their lives as wives and mothers but he eventually supported Levi-Montalcini's aspirations to become a doctor anyway. Levi-Montalcini decided to attend University of Turin Medical School after seeing a close family friend die of stomach cancer. While attending, she was taught by neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi who introduced her to the developing nervous system. After graduating in 1936, she went to work as Giuseppe Levi's assistant, but 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.
During World War II, Levi-Montalcini conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research. Her first genetics laboratory was in her bedroom at her home. In 1943, her family fled south to Florence, and she set up a laboratory there also. Her family returned to Turin in 1945.
In September 1946, Levi-Montalcini accepted an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger. Although the initial invitation was for one semester, she stayed for thirty years. It was there that she did her most important work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in 1952. She was made a Full Professor in 1958, and in 1962, established a research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis.
From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Research Center of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and from 1969 to 1978 the Laboratory of Cellular Biology. Rita Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2002, and then served as its president. Her role in this institute was at the center of some criticism from some parts of the scientific community in 2010.
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. This line of research led to a new inroad in treating chronic pain and neuro-inflammation using this endogenous compound as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug.
Rita Levi-Montalcini died in her home in Rome 30 December 2012 at the age of 103.
Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Levi-Montalcini
NYT obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/science/dr-rita-levi-montalcini-a-revolutionary-in-the-study-of-the-brain-dies-at-103.html?_r=0