He was kicked out of the campus by his hometown university, but the centenarian returned two top institutes and a Nobel Prize

▎WuXi AppTec Content Team Editor

Editor’s note

In less than a week, the highly anticipated Nobel Prize winners will be announced. As in previous years, the WuXi AppTec content team will also report the progress of the Nobel Prize for readers and friends as soon as possible. In this September, let us review the important discoveries that have won the Nobel Prize. These scientific breakthroughs have completely changed our understanding of nature.

On December 30, 2012, a centenarian died at home in Rome, Italy, and the mayor of Rome personally announced her death. Of course, such a big battle is not because the old man has a long life. In the eulogy, the mayor said that “the departure of Rita Levi-Montalcini is a huge loss for all mankind, < strong>She represents the research spirit of an era.”

As a woman and a Jew, Rita faced countless prejudices and adversities in the first half of her life, but none of this ultimately prevented her from making the discoveries that affect her to this day. One specific substance she found that had the surprising effect of stimulating nerve growth is now known as nerve growth factor (NGF).

Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for her contributions to the field of growth factors (Image source: The Nobel Foundation, Photo: Karl Anderson)

NGF, the first cell growth factor discovered in animals by scientists, has given us a way to fight neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, mental Schizophrenia, etc. The NGF also landed on the Nobel Prize stage, making Rita one of the few female Nobel Prize winners in science.

NGF’s discovery is dazzling, but it doesn’t overshadow Rita’s storied tale, her achievement is nothing short of nirvana in adversity.

Build a lab in the bedroom

In an interview before her death, Rita recalled her scientific journey as she sat on the couch in the apartment she shared with twin sister Paola, hanging in the room Full of Paula’s creations, her sister is already a well-known artist.

Their mother was also a painter, and Paula inherited her mother’s talent for painting.

But Rita is different. She is more fortunate to be acquainted with medicine. Although her father is very tolerant of her sister’s interest, Rita’s development is not in line with his path towards women at that time. idea. “The first thing I did was get my dad’s approval to get me into college instead of getting married,” recalls Rita.

Father’s reluctance to agree is just the beginning of trouble.

The first thing Rita faced was the question of admissions. Due to the low level of education of women, in order to qualify for medical school, Rita needed to spend eight months with men for several years. language and mathematics knowledge.

After struggling to get into the Turin Medical School, Rita was assigned the impossible task by her mentor: to study how the folds of the brain are formed , since there is no legitimate source of specimens, this task is tantamount to making things difficult, and Rita recalls these scenes with a bit of resentment, “No one can solve this stupid problem.

Image source: 123RF

She gave up the project and turned to neurology. At that time, the chick became her best friend, and the chick embryo was very helpful for the development of the nervous system.

The research momentum, however, was just beginning, when the Jewish-friendly environment suddenly took a nosedive.

Rita was kicked out of campus because of her status, “They won’t let me do research, I’ll do it myself,” Rita said in He built a laboratory directly in his bedroom. The scalpel is made by himself with sewing needles, the tweezers are for clock repair, and the scissors are small scissors used by the ophthalmologist.

It was under such rudimentary experimental conditions that she studied the motor neurons of chicken embryos under the microscope. She and the assistant she hired published the theory of embryonic neuron development in foreign journals.

Breakthrough in battle

By the 1940s, the war had spread to Rita’s hometown, and the bedroom laboratory was no longer safe. She and her family fled to the mountains, and she still remembers asking farmers for some eggs, not to fill her stomach, but to observe embryonic development.

At that time, far across the ocean in the United States, biologist Vikt Hamburg (ViktOr Hamburger) found that after the loss of the limb bud tissue, the nerve cells during embryonic development grew abnormally and the spinal cord was significantly smaller.

Nerve fibers from Rita’s experiment (Image credit: Washington University)

The discovery was finally published in a Belgian magazine during the war, and happened to be seen by Victor. After the war, Rita received his invitation to travel to the United States to find answers together. “I thought I would only be there for a year or two, or a few months, but I ended up staying for 30 years,” recalls Rita.

In collaboration with Victor, they discovered that a tumor cell line actually causes nerve cells to grow, two completely different cell types, and why nerve cells also act as fast as cancer cells What about growth? Are they also cancerous?

Rita’s lab in the US in the 1950s (Image credit: Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine)

At this point, she recalled her previous observation that Rita believed that the “nutrient molecule” that had been missing was in the tumor, and she transplanted the tumor into a small In chicken embryos, the same phenomenon was observed. This reaffirmed her speculation.

Rita worked with biochemist Stanley Cohen to purify the substances in the tumor. There is an extract that can significantly promote the growth of nerves. After multiple rounds of verification , they named this special substance nerve growth factor. They also found in the experiment that snake venom and the salivary glands of mice contain a large amount of NGF, which also provides directions for subsequent research materials.

From being driven by the state to being loved by the state

In 1986, Rita, who had been back in Rome for nearly 10 years, received a call, she remembers reading a novel, “The moment I found the criminal, they told I, I won the Nobel Prize,” Rita kept the book, the penultimate page and the note she wrote that year, recording the call and the time from Stockholm.

“I was happy, but I wanted to know more about how the story ended.” The story ends in the book, but Rita’s story continues.

Despite being expelled from the university for her status at a young age, she returned home to found and serve as the first director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. Rita also founded the European Brain Institute, both of which have had a significant impact on neuroscience research in Italy and Europe.

Rita also unwittingly became a scientist revered and loved by Italians.

European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) presentation still retains Rita’s name

Because Italians love Rita so much, an autobiographical film of the same name is released in 2020, and millions of people have watched and recounted the story of the legendary female scientist.

In the introduction to Rita on the official Nobel Prize website, she left her own evaluation of adversity in a prominent position, “If I hadn’t been discriminated against or persecuted, then I would never have won Nobel Prize.”

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