Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nerve Growth Stimulating Factor is isolated, paving the way for important medical advancements

Contributed by: Mahal Bugay @majbugay



Animals, Cancer, Cellular biology, Europe, Experimental, Fundamental research, Historical figure, Italian, Jewish, Lab, Medicine, Neurobiology, North America, Peripheral nervous system, Physiology, Sympathetic nervous system, Theory/Computational, Woman



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Cohen, S., Levi-Montalcini, R., & Hamburger, V. 1954. A nerve growth-stimulating factor isolated from sarcomas 37 and 180. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America40(10): 1014–1018. link

Zeliadt, N. 2013. Rita Levi-Montalcini: NGF, the prototypical growth factor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(13), 4873-4876. link






Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian Jewish neurobiologist, who co-discovered nerve growth factor (NGF) with Dr. Stanley Cohen. For this discovery, she was co-awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Biography in brief

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy on April 22, 1909, as the youngest of four children of an intellectual, yet traditional, Victorian family. As the head of the household, her father made all of the decisions and, therefore, restricted Rita and her two sisters from attending university. However, at 20 years old, Rita realized she could not fulfill her father’s vision of a traditional woman and persuaded him to allow her to study medicine at the University of Turin. In 1940, she graduated with a specialization degree in neurology and psychiatry. Unfortunately, at this time, Mussolini issued laws that prevented Italian Jewish people from practicing medicine or working in universities. Despite this, Rita set up lab equipment in her bedroom, continuing her research on the nerve growth fibers in chicken embryos. In 1941, her family was forced to leave Turin due to heavy Allied bombing of the city, but Rita rebuilt her lab in her family’s country cottage in the Piedmontese hills. In 1943, Germany invaded Italy, forcing the family to move to Florence and to live underground until the end of the war. By May 1945, the war in Italy had ended and she returned with her family to Turin, where she continued her academic position at the university. Her research caught the attention of Viktor Hamburger, who was the head of the Zoology Department of Washington University in St. Louis, and he invited Rita to join him as a collaborator. She accepted the invitation in 1947, moving to St. Louis and staying there for the next 30 years. In 1962, she established a lab at the Higher Institute of Health in Rome, thus dividing her time between St. Louis and Rome. In 1969, she established the Laboratory of Cell Biology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome, serving as its director until 1979. Suffice to say, she was a heavily revered scientist, receiving many other awards and honors alongside the Nobel Prize. Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

Is (or was) their research under-valued because of their identity?

As a Jewish person living under Mussolini’s reign, Levi-Montalcini was restricted from researching and working at Italian universities due to anti-Semitic laws. In addition, she overcame the traditional view of women’s role in academia at the time.

Are there other scientists/research examples that this example can replace or be added to?

Rita Levi-Montalcini co-discovered nerve growth factor (NGF) with Dr. Stanley Cohen. They were both co-awarded 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of study

To learn more about cell and neural growth, Rita looked at mouse sarcomas, which are tumors found in tissues like bone or muscle. When the tumors were blended to open up the cells inside and transplanted into chick embryos, they discovered that these mixtures also encouraged nerve growth compared to the intact tumors. Much of the nerve growth activity was found in the part of the mixture that contained membranes and ribosomes from the endoplasmic reticulum.

Study system

Photo of Rita Levi-Montalcini in her lab circa 1959, holding a mouse. Mice can be important model systems to study genetics instead of, or before, conducting research on humans. In this case, Rita and her colleagues transplanted sarcomas and mixtures of these cancerous cells into chick embryos to see how nerve growth was affected. From testing multiple mouse tumors, it was the cultured cell lines identified as sarcoma 37 and 180, that encouraged nerve fiber growth when transplanted into chick embryos.


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

The figure panel shows how the blended tumor mixture promoted nerve growth in a type of nerve cell (sympathetic ganglia). The research team varied the concentration of the mixture and saw key differences. In figure 1 (top left), there is a control that did not receive the tumor mixture. Figures 2-4 had increasing amounts of the mixture. Each increase in tumor extract concentration resulted in the ganglia showing increased growth of nerve fibers (see lines coming out of the cell).

Societal Relevance

This study and many others from Levi-Montalcini and colleagues led to the discovery and isolation of nerve growth factor (NGF). This research was fundamental in understanding cell and organ growth, especially neural growth. By understanding cell, neural, and organ growth, scientists can test whether NGF can be used as a potential therapeutic target in cancer and can use NGF as a way to study neural degeneration (e.g., dementia, Alzheimer’s disease) and psychiatric disorders (e.g., schizophrenia).


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