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It is funny to think about how we as humans were just a tiny cell when we were conceived. The cells grew into an embryo, which grew into a baby, and then a fully grown adult. As vital as the growth process is for our survival, we had never given it much thought earlier until Prof. Rita Levi-Montalcini and her research partner, Prof. Stanley Cohen discovered growth factors! This insight has really helped us understand a key aspect of developmental biology today!

The journey of her scientific career

Prof. Rita Levi-Montalcini had a hard time getting through to where she came from. Her journey began at a time when Italy was under the fascist regime. Being a Jew especially from a conservative family where women were expected to be homemakers. Despite her father’s attitude about what she should be doing with her life, she took a chance with it. After seeking his permission to study medicine, this is where her journey began.

She was very undereducated for someone who wanted to study medicine. So, she spent most of her time studying and crammed study materials with years of work within 8 months! She managed to graduate with a medical degree but soon was unsure about whether surgery would be her career path. She decided to do advanced studies in the field of neurology and psychology.

Nerve fibers photographed in her lab (Source: nobelprize.org)
Nerve fibers photographed in her lab (Source: nobelprize.org)

Once she began working, due to the increased tensions in the region she was forced to leave her work. Mind you, this did not stop her from continuing her work. She brought all of it to her bedroom and began her research there! Inspired by an article about chick embryos, she dissected them to study their motor neurons. These neurons are responsible for controlling our movements in the body. But how did she come across this great discovery?

The breakthrough

When she took an assistant, Giuseppe Levi (who also faced the effects of the growing racism), they both came up with a theory for embryonic nerve cells, that they proliferate, grow and die. The problem is that nerve cells, proliferate, grow but soon they die. They cannot be regenerated unlike other cells in the body. This theory ran counter to the theory proposed in Victor Hamburger’s article, the one she was inspired by!

Photomicroscopy of chicken embryo developments specifically cerebellum and optical cortex (Source: nobelprize.org)
Photomicroscopy of chicken embryo developments specifically cerebellum and optical cortex (Source: nobelprize.org)

Due to the ongoing war, she was forced to stop her work for the time being. This is when she realized that neuroembryology would the best way forward for her. Soon when Victor Hamburger had discovered her paper, he invited her over to further her research. Fast forward through time, during an experiment where they inserted a mouse tumor into a chick embryo, they realized that it increased the growth of the chick embryo at the time. Similar cell growth was observed when they carried similar experiments in vitro. This is when they discovered that there was a certain substance responsible for this growth. They named it the nerve growth factor (NGF) and soon, Prof. Stanley Cohen managed to isolate the same from the tumors!

Impact of her discovery

This discovery had a huge impact on many people as it could be used to study many neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Schizophrenia etc. This always paved the way for many other scientists to discover different types of growth factors. It was also used to study neural growth and understand many deformative disorders as well. NGF has been recognized as a potential target for cancer since then which is huge in the case it can be translated into a therapeutic option.

She herself has spent much of her time outside the lab into ensuring that all scientists have access to funding and equipment. She had set up her own foundation where African women were given access to education. The Institute for Cell Biology in Rome was founded by her where she was the Director! In 2001, she was also given the highest honor in Italy as a senator, even though she was chased out of the country once upon a time. In this role, she constantly fought for keeping the science funding ongoing in the country which has resulted in a huge boost for science in Italy! The public persecution she faced since a young age, was one of her biggest motivators in life. Needless to say that her impact in the field of neurobiology and science policy is everlasting and we need more people like her now.

Fun fact: She is the longest living Nobel laureate as she passed away when she 103 years old!

References

Rita Levi-Montalcini. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/rita-levi-montalcini

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