By BENEDICT CAREY of The New York Times: December 30, 2012
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.
In the early 1950s, she and Dr. Stanley Cohen, a biochemist also at Washington University, isolated and described the chemical, known as nerve growth factor — and in the process altered the study of cell growth and development. Scientists soon realized that the protein gave them a new way to study and understand disorders of neural growth, like cancer, or of degeneration, like Alzheimer’s disease, and to potentially develop therapies.
In the years after the discovery, Dr. Levi-Montalcini, Dr. Cohen and others described a large family of such growth-promoting agents, each of which worked to regulate the growth of specific cells. One, called epidermal growth factor and discovered by Dr. Cohen, plays a central role in breast cancer; in part by studying its behavior, scientists developed drugs to combat the abnormal growth.
In 1986, Dr. Levi-Montalcini and Dr. Cohen shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.
Dr. Cohen, now an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University, said Dr. Levi-Montalcini possessed a rare combination of intuition and passion, as well as biological knowledge. “She had this feeling for what was happening biologically,” he said. “She was an intuitive observer, and she saw that something was making these nerve connections grow and was determined to find out what it was.”