What may have been Rita Levi-Montalcini’s last paper was published almost a year ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.By no means a retrospective of a career that produced a Nobel Prize, the paper (“Nerve growth factor regulates axial rotation during early stages of chick embryo development”) added still one more bit of knowledge about the protein involved with the growth and survival of nerve cells, a molecule that was Levi-Montalcini’s passion for 60 years.
Until her death on Sunday in Rome at 103, Levi-Montalcini had been the oldest living Nobelist and a woman who had never let anything stop her from pursuing a destiny as a scientist.
The barriers were sometimes formidable. First there was her father, who discouraged her from becoming a physician but later provided support.
Later the Nazis threatened—she set up a makeshift lab in her wartime hideout—and then finally came the confrontation with the inexorability of ageing. The New York Times obit included this 2009 quotation: “At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20.”
The awarding of the Nobel represented more than a lifetime achievement award for work performed decades earlier: the relevance of Levi-Montalcini’s research continues to the present day.
Months after the PNAS report, one of her coauthors wrote an article in Molecular Neurobiology about the prospects for investigating research on brain deficits in nerve growth factor as an early pivotal event in Alzheimer’s, research that could suggest new drug leads for an illness that has so far eluded any meaningful treatment.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
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