Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


“Never surrender,” says neuroscientist, 102, of life and research

March, 2011

On February 23, neuroscientist Rita Levi Montalcini, 102 in April, received an honorary science doctorate from McGill University, hosted by Sapienza University in Rome.

The first honorary degree conferred by McGill on foreign soil in its 190-year history, the tribute is a testament to the importance of Montalcini’s contributions to medicine and society.

“I always had a taste for work, this is my formula,” she said at the ceremony.

Montalcini’s identification of the nerve growth factor, or NGF, essential to the survival and maintenance of cells in the nervous system, has important implications decades after its discovery and has been the basis of several cancer drugs, including Tarceva, Erbitux and Herceptin. NGF is still being studied, as it may have the potential to heal a wide range of medical conditions, including multiple sclerosis.

“Although we are very far away, we must never surrender,” Montalcini has said, regarding the importance of funding embryonic stem cell research. “I am certain that one day we will defeat this disease, which strikes mainly young individuals.”

At McGill, Dr. Claudio Cuello, a personal friend of Montalcini, continues to do research on how NGF is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

Montalcini and colleague Stanley Cohen, with whom she continued to develop her seminal research, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986, becoming the fourth Nobel Prize winner from Italy’s small (less than 50,000) Jewish community. At the time, she credited Cohen’s rigorous training in biochemistry and her own training in neurology for providing “an ideal complementary background to tackle what at first seemed a fairly easy puzzle to solve; namely to uncover the nature and mechanism of action of a protein molecule that became known, on account of its biological properties, as the nerve growth factor. It took, however, more than three decades to realize the complexity of the problem that is still under intensive investigation all over the world.”

Dr. Rita Levi Montalcini, 102, is flanked by Sapienza University rector Dr. Luigi Frati (left) and McGill University provost Anthony Masi. Photo courtesy of McGill

Two years ago, her inquiring spirit was still flourishing. “At 100 years of age, I am still making discoveries about the factor that I myself discovered more than half a century ago.”

That year, Montalcini was preparing her newest book for publication, and was dividing her time between the European Brain Research Institute she founded, as well as the Rita Levi Montalcini Onlus Foundation, which has awarded 7,000 university fellowships to women mostly in Africa who would not otherwise have access to education. Besides the Nobel Prize, Montalcini has acquired numerous honours, including two other honorary degrees from universities in Turin and Madrid; the National Medal of Science, the most prestigious American honour for science; and she was appointed senator for life in 2001. She is the only woman admitted to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Born in 1909, Montalcini defied the mores of Victorian society by attending university. Two years after she graduated, Mussolini’s anti-Semitic race laws forced her to leave her post at the University of Turin and go underground. During the war, she continued her research, with no funding, in a homemade laboratory in her bedroom, and later in the country where she fled the bombing. In 1944, when the Germans were forced out of Florence, she was hired by the Allied forces to tend to hundreds refugees.

“Epidemics of infectious diseases and of abdominal typhus spread death among the refugees where I was in charge as a nurse and medical doctor, sharing with them their suffering and the daily danger of death,” she wrote in her autobiography. In the fall of 1947, Montalcini received an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis where she began her groundbreaking research.

She credits her vitality to her ability to face life “with complete disinterest in yourself, and with a maximum attention to the world surrounding you, both the inanimate as well as the living one.”

She has said that her mental capacities have only improved with all the experience she has lived. “The secret of life is to keep thinking. And to stop thinking about ourselves. That’s the only message I have.”

Death, she says, is of no consequence. “The important thing is to have lived with serenity, using the rational left-hand side of one’s brain, and not the right side, the instinctive side, which leads to misery and tragedy.”



Post a Comment