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Levi-Montalcini, Rita

growth factor nerve ngf

[ lay ee montal chee nee] (1909– ) Italian neurophysiologist: discovered nerve growth factor.

Montalcini’s training was difficult; her Italian-Jewish family long opposed her entry to medical school, and when she graduated the Second World War began and as a non-Aryan she had to go into hiding. Her early research, with her medical school instructor G Levi on the neuroembryology of the chick, was done in her bedroom; eggs were easy to secure (by pretending she had young children) and could be eaten after experimentation. In 1947 she went to Washington University in St Louis and in 1949, with V Hamburger, showed that the embryonic nervous system produces many more nerve cells than are needed; the number of survivors depends on the volume of tissue they need to serve. From this clue, she went on to discover the nerve growth factor (NGF), which appears to be critically involved in the growth of nerves of all kinds, including those of the central nervous system.

With the biochemist S Cohen (1917– ) she showed that male mouse saliva is a good source of NGF; and he went on to discover the related epidermal growth factor (EGF). In 1979 Levi-Montalcini retired from directing the Laboratory for Cell Biology in Rome, and in 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize with Cohen; she was then 77.

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