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Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Winner, Dies At 103 36

Posted by samzenpus
from the fare-thee-well dept.
SternisheFan writes "Nobel winner Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who discovered chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerves, has died. She was 103. From the article: 'Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer, died on Sunday at her home in Rome. She was 103. Her death was announced by Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome. "I don't use these words easily, but her work revolutionized the study of neural development, from how we think about it to how we intervene," said Dr. Gerald D. Fishbach, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at Columbia. Scientists had virtually no idea how embryo cells built a latticework of intricate connections to other cells when Dr. Levi-Montalcini began studying chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II. After years of obsessive study, much of it at Washington University in St. Louis with Dr. Viktor Hamburger, she found a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells.'"
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Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Winner, Dies At 103

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    • by SternisheFan (2529412) on Monday December 31, 2012 @05:21PM (#42436103)
      Rita Levi-Montalcini, who has died aged 103, overcame racial and sexual prejudice to become a leading neurobiologist and one of the handful of women scientists to win a Nobel Prize.

      Her triumph came in 1986, when she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with her student, the biochemist Stanley Cohen, for their contributions to the understanding of growth factors in human development.

      By the 1950s, the pattern of cell growth and differentiation had long been established, and scientists knew that the addition of blood or organ extracts to cells in culture resulted in their successful growth. They did not know, however, the identity of the active substances, just as cancer researchers understood little of the unregulated growth of tumour cells.

      In 1952, Rita Levi-Montalcini found that when tumours from mice were transplanted to chick embryos, they induced potent growth of the chick embryo nervous system . She concluded that the tumour released a nerve growth-promoting factor (NGF) which had a selective action on certain types of nerve cells.

      Following this discovery, she began to measure the effect of NGF on cells in culture, and discovered that a sensory or sympathetic nerve cell reacted within 30 seconds of the addition of minute quantities of NGF. Just one billionth part of a gram of NGF per millilitre of culture medium exerted a potent growth-promoting effect.

      In 1953 the biochemist Stanley Cohen joined her research group at Washington University, St Louis, and together they purified a nerve growth-promoting extract. Rita Levi-Montalcini’s discovery improved scientific understanding of the processes involved in certain physical malformations and diseases. It has led to improved therapeutic agents and could be central to eventual treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression or anorexia.

      Rita Levi-Montalcini was born, with her twin sister Paola, in Turin on April 22 1909, the youngest of four children. Her father, Adamo Levi, was an electrical engineer and mathematician, and her mother, Adele Montalcini, a talented painter. Their elder brother, Gino, would become a prominent Italian architect and professor at the University of Turin.

      Though the family was cultured, Rita’s father took a traditional view of a woman’s place and decided that his three daughters should not go to university. But Rita was convinced she could not be content with a merely domestic role and, at the age of 20, begged her father to be allowed to try for university. Eventually he relented and within eight months she had rectified her deficiencies in Latin, Greek and Mathematics, graduated from high school, and enrolled at the medical school in Turin, where she studied under the histologist Giuseppe Levi.

      In 1936 she graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and began postgraduate work in neurology and psychiatry. But that year, Mussolini issued the Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza, signed by 10 Italian scientists, which called for laws barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan citizens. She therefore left Italy for Belgium, where she worked as a guest of a neurological institute in Brussels. In 1940, on the eve of the German invasion of Belgium, she returned to the relative safety of Turin.

      Realising it would not be possible to pursue her scientific interests openly, Rita Levi-Montalcini built a small research unit in her bedroom. By this time, inspired by a 1934 article by Viktor Hamburger reporting on the effects of limb amputation in chick embryos, she had become interested in the mechanisms controlling the development of the vertebrate nervous system. She had barely begun work when her former teacher, Giuseppe Levi, who had also escaped from Belgium, returned to Turin and joined her in her work.

      Forced to leave Turin by the heavy Allied bombing of the city in 1941, she moved her laboratory to a cotta

      • by quangdog (1002624)
        I'm truly humbled when I compare the "problems" in my life with the monumental obstacles she overcame.

        Rita, you left a truly wonderful mark on this world. May you rest in peace.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Levi-Montalcini#Early_life_and_education

    Does anyone know if this is going down over the last decades as asian-pacific/developing world get more prizes ?

  • Giuseppe Levi (Score:5, Informative)

    by nbauman (624611) on Monday December 31, 2012 @08:14PM (#42437465) Homepage Journal

    Giuseppe Levi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Levi [wikipedia.org] http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=it&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fit.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FGiuseppe_Levi [google.com] had 3 students who went on to win Nobel prizes. Biologists had been studying gross anatomy from before human history. In Levi's time, they had really good microscopes for 100 years, so they had extended that study to the tissues and cells of the organs. Levi extended that to understand the physiological mechanisms of those tissues. He could see that brain cells were growing, but how were they growing and why were they growing?

    He assigned Rita Levi-Montalcini to figure out how the brain developed. It was an impossible problem, so she did what scientists often do and attacked a simpler problem: How does a nerve cell develop? She finally found a factor that caused it to grow. Now we have more growth factors than you could cover in an hour's biology class.

    Levi's second student, Salvador Luria, wound up studying bacteriophages, the viruses that attack bacteria. He (they, really -- these were collective efforts) found out that some bacteria was resistant to viruses. It turned out that the mechanism of resistance was restriction enzymes that would chop the DNA or RNA of viruses at particular sequences that were found in the viruses but not in the bacteria themselves. This turned out to be a fantastically useful tool for studying DNA and RNA. Grad students use it every day.

    Levi's third student, Renato Dulbecco, discovered a virus that turned cells cancerous. It turned out that very few human cancers are caused by viruses, but the study of that one example of how cells become cancerous through viruses helped to unravel the whole mechanism of cancer. One of his contributions was to the technique of growing cells, and you can read medical reports today that cells were grown in Dulbecco's medium. During WWII, Dulbecco joined the Resistance against the Nazis.

    Another Italian Nobel laureate in that group, but not a student of Levi's, was Mario Capecchi. Capecci had a hard childhood during WWII. His father was drafted to fight in North Africa as an anti-aircraft gunner, but he was lost in combat. His mother was an American, the daughter of an American artist and a German archaeologist, but like most of this bunch she was a Communist, and they sent her to Dachau. She had made provision for a peasant family to take care of Mario, but that fell apart and he wound up at the age of 4 on the streets, like in one of those post-war Italian movies. After the war, his mother got out of Dachau, and found him in a hospital. Finally, his mother's brother, who was a physicist at RCA, found them and brought them to America, where Mario finally got his education.

    Mario Capecchi was playing around with the repair mechanisms of DNA, which are subverted by viruses, and figured out how to use them to knock out a single gene in mice (or any animals). If you know any biology, you understand how useful this was. Today, when a researcher finds a mutation responsible for a disease the routine thing he does is to create a knockout mouse to see what happens without that gene. It's like having an on/off switch to see what happens when you turn a gene on and off.

    After Capecchi won the Nobel prize in 2008, his half-sister in Austria recognized him as her long-lost brother.

    Those Italian biologists were an interesting bunch, and they lived in dramatic times.

  • I read this, and am absolutely amazed and impressed at her brilliance. She really was a credit to the human race in general as so many of the Nobel Prize winners have been historically.

    And then I see that our President got a Nobel for what, again?

    • by king*six (2607999)

      And then I see that our President got a Nobel for what, again?

      For being black, d'uh.

      • Aw c'mon. I'm not feeling like a flamewar about this, I'll just paste this excerpt from Wikipedia and leave it at that.

        "Another controversial Peace Prize was that awarded to Barack Obama in 2009. [116] Nominations had closed only eleven days after Obama took office as President, but the actual evaluation occurred over the next eight months. [52] Obama himself stated that he did not feel deserving of the award, [117][118] or worthy of the company it would place him in. [119] Past Peace Prize laureates wer

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        And then I see that our President got a Nobel for what, again?

        For being black, d'uh.

        No, it was for not being George W Bush.

    • Isn't the Nobel prize meant to be not just an agknowledgment of good works, but also an encouragement to go on to do even more good for their field of expertise? For those who, through their deeds have made a life affecting change for the betterment of the human race? If so, I pose this to you: You may not agree or like some of the previous winners, but can you truly say that they did not meet that criteria, including President Obama?

      "There are no detailed criteria for winning a Nobel Prize. Instead, th

  • She and her twin sister were featured in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times, which is well worth viewing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_by_Design/The_Life_and_Times_of_Life_and_Times [wikipedia.org]

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