THE PRIDE OF OUR HERITAGE: RITA LEVI MONTALCINI


Rita Levi-Montalcini, an internationally recognized neuroscientist, devoted most of her 103 years of life studying and researching the development of the nervous system. It ultimately led her to winning the Nobel Price for the discovery of how the body grows nerve cells and builds the nerve networks. Her findings brought to light the needed platform to build the development of cell therapy for the treatments of diseases like dementia, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, heart diseases, fertility, and schizophrenia.


On April 1909, she and her twin sister Paola were born in Turin, Italy, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia in pre-Italy unification and the first capital of United Italy until 1865. Their parents were loving and very prominent Italian Jewish members of the community. Their father, Adamo Levi was an electrical engineer and a brilliant mathematician, while their mother, Adele Montalcini, was an artist. Her sister's ambitions aligned more closely with those of her mother while Rita's ambitions were more in tune with the ones of her dad. Their father was a very traditional man and very much wished for his daughters to become good wives and mothers. But in Rita's own words, in her 1988 autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, she claims: " My experience in childhood and adolescence of the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men had convinced me that I was not cut out to be a wife." At age 20, she persuaded her father to allow her to pursue a professional career. She subsequently, in 1930, enrolled at the University of Turin Medical School, to become a doctor. At the same time, she added her mother's maiden name of Montalcini to her own. In 1936, she emerged as a summa cum laude graduate and immediately began a three year fellowship at the University in the field of neurology and psychiatry, while continuing her nerve cell research. She was just one of a handful of women scientists, a practice that was not easily acclaimed. She worked under the guidance of Giuseppe Levi (no relation to the family), the renowned neurogenesist. (a person that studies the birth of new cells in the brain). He became a great mentor to her and he greatly influenced her curiosity of the nerve cells. Additionally, she quickly mastered the process of silver staining the nerve cells to view them under a microscope. Within this time frame of the late 1930s, Mussolini enacted the Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza, or the Manifesto of the Racial Scientist and a set of Racial Laws, or the Leggi razziali, to strip the Jewish citizens of their civil rights. This forced her to withdraw from her work at the University to shield her colleague from being accused of collaborating with a Jewish scientist. This abrupt reversal of affairs did not dissuade her from pursuing her interests. She proceeded to set up a small laboratory in her bedroom to continue her research in the neurogenesis of a chick embryo. When the family was forced to leave Turin for the countryside, she packed all her equipment and proceeded to reset her bedroom lab for the second time. For her, it was crucial to continue to closely study the discoveries made by Viktor Hamburger, an embryologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His discoveries were about the nerve cell growth in chick embryos. The process to replicate the experiments of Viktor was meticulous, but contrary to her expectations, she discovered that a significant amount of dead cells were present, even in healthy embryos, and a number of nerve cells normally migrated towards a target. The nerve cells that failed to make strong connections with the target cells died. She turned out to be the eye witness for the normal process of cell development and concluded that the death of the cells was the result of an insufficient presence of a growth promoting substance. Excited by her discovery but unable to publish her findings in Italy due to the circumstances of WWII, she managed to sent the manuscript to Belgium with the help of her former mentor, Giuseppe Levi. It was published in 1942 and again in 1943. Meantime, she invested her energy in a dangerous environment, as a medical doctor, using a fake identity card, to help the sick and wounded, until the end of the war in 1945. Simultaneously her research work did not go unnoticed. Viktor Hamburger took an interest to her findings and invited her to visit his lab in Missouri for a semester. The visit extended to 30 years. She became a Full Professor at Washington University. She also established a second lab in Rome and was able to split her time between Rome and the US. In 1969, she became the first Director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome and the Institute grew to be the largest in the country. While in the US, Rita Levi-Montalcini developed a technique to culture nerve cells outside the embryo, with the help of thropic factors. The word "Thropic" is derived from a Greek word implying nourishment. These factors are molecules, acting as insulin-like protein that allow nerve cells to grow and maintain a strong connection with neighboring cells. To help her further investigate and classify these thropic factors, especially those with DNA or RNA components, Viktor hired a young and talented biochemist, Stanley Cohen, as her assistant. Together they found that snake venom as well as the male sub-maxillary glands of mice were rich sources of thropic factors containing the interested components. Their experiments showed that these factors directly influenced the cell growth of mammals. They called the substance "Nerve Growth Factor" or NFG and published their findings in 1960, only to be met with a lot of skepticism, resulting in a lot of debates. After the dust settled and their findings accepted, the number of thropic factors expanded and collectively have become known as neurotrophins, the protein needed to promote new cells survival and maintenance during their development and during the regeneration after an injury. Since then, it has also become evident that these neurotrophins play a major role in the adult brains and coincide with the development of many diseases. The importance of their work led them to the winning of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1986. She was the first Italian woman so honored. Their research and discoveries has had an immeasurable affects in the modern medical field of gene cell therapy. Science has now established that the brain continues to reorganize itself and create new brain cells throughout life. Studies have found that a lower NGF levels in people may result in the onset of a number of metabolic diseases (cardiovascular, type 2 diabetes, etc), while a higher NGF level may result in a number of autoimmune diseases ( rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, scleroderma, psoriasis etc). Substantial progress toward finding cures for these illness has been made but scientists still need to understanding much more. Rita Levi-Montalcini was a strong minded woman and one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, with an incredible career and more than 200 published manuscripts. She fought heroically and arduously to continuously follow her passions by overcoming the entrenched sexism of her time and the anti-Semitics of WWII. Both challenges were dangerous undertakings but they did not discourage her from making headway. She was an advocate for the Italian science and in 1992 established the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which supports women from developing countries to find careers in science. In 2001, she was granted the position as a senator for life in the Italian government, allowing her to influence key policies. In 2002, she established the European Brain Research Institute in Rome and served as the Head of this Institute until her death. Being a recipient of numerous and varied awards, she often participated in television debates, wrote popular-science books and provided advice to various agencies. Such was the stature of Rita Levi-Montalcini when she quietly passed away in her home on the 30th of December 2012 at age 103! The following are some of her most stimulating quotes. They were copied from the web-page: https://quotefancy.com/rita-levi-montalcini-quotes 1. “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.Rita Levi-Montalcini 2. “If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same – it is the message you leave behind you that counts.Rita Levi-Montalcini 3. The body does whatever it wants. I am not my body; I am my mind.Rita Levi-Montalcini 4. “I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything.Rita Levi-Montalcini 5. “It’s not enough what I did in the past – there is also the future.Rita Levi-Montalcini 6. “Find first peace within yourself. Don’t eat too much. Keep your brain active. Love.Rita Levi-Montalcini 7. “At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience- than when I was 20.Rita Levi-Montalcini 8. “Il corpo faccia quello che vuole, io sono la mente.Rita Levi-Montalcini 9. “Progress depends on our brain. The most important part of our brain, that which is neocortical, must be used to help others and not just to make discoveries.” — Rita Levi-Montalcini 10. “A child from the age of 2 or 3 absorbs what is in the environment and what generates hatred for anyone perceived to be different.Rita Levi-Montalcini 11. “My experience in childhood and adolescence of the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men had convinced me that I was not cut out to be a wife.Rita Levi-Montalcini 12. “The instruments, glassware, and chemical reagents necessary for my project were the same as my 19th-century predecessors had.Rita Levi-Montalcini 13. “At 20, I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father and asked him permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months I filled my gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin.Rita Levi-Montalcini 14. “My life has been enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests. I have never felt lonely.Rita Levi-Montalcini 15. “Babies did not attract me, and I was altogether without the maternal sense so highly developed in small and adolescent girls.Rita Levi-Montalcini 16. “If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize.Rita Levi-Montalcini 17. “The process for awarding Nobel prizes is so complex that it cannot be corrupted.Rita Levi-Montalcini

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