Rita Levi-Monalcini was born in Italy in 1909. After completing her education and qualifying as a medical doctor, she worked at the University of Turin. In 1939, Mussolini’s fascist regime banned Jews from doing research, but Rita Levi-Montalcini continued her work in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom. In 1947, she moved to the United States and began work at Washinton University in St. Louis where she undertook cancer research together with Stanley Cohen. In 1977, she returned to Rome to work in the National Council of Scientific Research.
How does man grow from a single fertilized cell into a complex arrangement of billions of cells each with its own unique function and working together in perfect synchronization? Part of the answer lies in the family of proteins known as growth factors which were first discovered by Stanley Cohen and Levi-Montalcini in the l950’s.
In awarding the 1986 Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology to Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen, the prize committee noted that their work was of fundamental importance in making it possible to understand the mechanisms which regulate cell and organ growth.
Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered that cancerous tissue around a nerve cell secretes a certain chemical substance that accelerates the growth of nerve cells. She called this the nerve growth factor – NGF. Stanley Cohen was able to isolate this factor and even develop antibodies against it.
The very existence of growth factors was questionable prior to the research of Stanley Cohen and Rita levi-Montalcini. Today, scientists are convinced that they exist and recognize their great importance.