How a Nobel-Prize Winner Fought Her Family, Nazis, and Bombs to Change our Understanding of Cells Forever
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
When Rita Levi-Montalcini decided to become a scientist, she was determined that nothing would stand in her way. And from the beginning, that determination was put to the test. Before Levi-Montalcini became a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, the first to discover and isolate a crucial chemical called Neural Growth Factor (NGF), she would have to battle both the sexism within her own family as well as the racism and fascism that was slowly engulfing her country
Levi-Montalcini was born to two loving parents in Turin, Italy at the turn of the 20th century. She and her twin sister, Paola, were the youngest of the family's four children, and Levi-Montalcini described her childhood as "filled with love and reciprocal devotion." But while her parents were loving, supportive and "highly cultured," her father refused to let his three daughters engage in any schooling beyond the basics. "He loved us and had a great respect for women," she later explained, "but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother."
Science Under a Fascist Regime<p>Two years into her research assistant position, Levi-Montalcini was fired, along with every other "non-Aryan Italian" who held an academic or professional career, thanks to a series of antisemitic laws passed by Italy's then-leader Benito Mussolini. Forced out of her academic position, Levi-Montalcini went to Belgium for a fellowship at a neurological institute in Brussels – but then was forced back to Turin when the German army invaded.</p><p>Levi-Montalcini decided to keep researching. She and Guiseppe Levi built a makeshift lab in Levi-Montalcini's apartment, borrowing chicken eggs from local farmers and using sewing needles to dissect them. By dissecting the chicken embryos from her bedroom laboratory, she was able to see how nerve fibers formed and died. The two continued this research until they were interrupted again – this time, by British air raids. Levi-Montalcini fled to a country cottage to continue her research, and then two years later was forced into hiding when the German army invaded Italy. Levi-Montalcini and her family assumed different identities and lived with non-Jewish friends in Florence to survive the Holocaust. Despite all of this, Levi-Montalcini continued her work, dissecting chicken embryos from her hiding place until the end of the war. </p>
A Post-War Discovery<p>Several years after the war, when Levi-Montalcini was once again working at the University of Turin, a German embryologist named Viktor Hamburger invited her to Washington University in St. Louis. Hamburger was impressed by Levi-Montalcini's research with her chicken embryos, and secured an opportunity for her to continue her work in America. The invitation would "change the course of my life," Levi-Montalcini would later recall.</p><p>During her fellowship, Montalcini grew tumors in mice and then transferred them to chick embryos in order to see how it would affect the chickens. To her surprise, she noticed that introducing the tumor samples would cause nerve fibers to grow rapidly. From this, Levi-Montalcini discovered and was able to isolate a protein that she determined was able to cause this rapid growth. She later named this Nerve Growth Factor, or NGF. </p><p>From there, Levi-Montalcini and her team launched new experiments to test NGF, injecting it and repressing it to see the effect it had in a test subject's body. When the team injected NGF into embryonic mice, they observed nerve growth, as well as the mouse pups developing faster – their eyes opening earlier and their teeth coming in sooner – than the untreated group. When the team purified the NGF extract, however, it had no effect, leading the team to believe that something else in the crude extract of NGF was influencing the growth of the newborn mice. Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini's colleague, identified another growth factor called EGF – epidermal growth factor – that caused the mouse pups' eyes and teeth to grow so quickly. </p><p>Levi-Montalcini continued to experiment with NGF for the next several decades at Washington University, illuminating how NGF works in our body. When Levi-Montalcini injected newborn mice with an antiserum for NGF, for example, her team found that it "almost completely deprived the animals of a sympathetic nervous system." Other experiments done by Levi-Montalcini and her colleagues helped show the role that NGF plays in other important biological processes, such as the regulation of our immune system and ovulation. <br> </p><p>"The discovery of NGF really changed the world in which we live, because now we knew that cells talk to other cells, and that they use soluble factors. It was hugely important," <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/110/13/4873" target="_blank">said</a> Bill Mobley, Chair of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. </p>
Her Lasting Legacy<p>After years of setbacks, Levi-Montalcini's groundbreaking work was recognized in 1986, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of NGF (Cohen, her colleague who discovered EGF, shared the prize). Researchers continue to study NGF even to this day, and the continued research has been able to increase our understanding of diseases like HIV and Alzheimer's. </p><p>Levi-Montalcini never stopped researching either: In January 2012, at the age of 102, Levi-Montalcini published her last research paper in the journal PNAS, making her the oldest member of the National Academy of Science to do so. Before she died in December 2012, she encouraged other scientists who would suffer setbacks in their careers to keep pursuing their passions. "Don't fear the difficult moments," Levi-Montalcini is quoted as saying. "The best comes from them." </p>
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.
"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."
Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.
The scene of the fire.
Boston Public Library
Tragic Losses Prompted Revolutionary Leaps<p>But there is a silver lining: this horrific disaster prompted dramatic changes in safety regulations to prevent another catastrophe of this magnitude and led to the development of medical techniques that eventually saved millions of lives. It transformed burn care treatment and the use of plasma on burn victims, but most importantly, it introduced to the public a new wonder drug that revolutionized medicine, midwifed the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and nearly doubled life expectancy, from 48 years at the turn of the 20<sup>th</sup> century to 78 years in the post-World War II years.</p><p>The devastating grief of the survivors also led to the first published study of post-traumatic stress disorder by pioneering psychiatrist Alexandra Adler, daughter of famed Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who was a student of Freud. Dr. Adler studied the anxiety and depression that followed this catastrophe, according to the <em>New York Times</em>, and "later applied her findings to the treatment World War II veterans."</p><p>Dr. Ken Marshall is intimately familiar with the lingering psychological trauma of enduring such a disaster. His mother, an Irish immigrant and a nurse in the surgical wards at Boston City Hospital, was on duty that cold Thanksgiving weekend night, and didn't come home for four days. "For years afterward, she'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night," recalls Dr. Marshall, who was four years old at the time. "Seeing all those bodies lined up in neat rows across the City Hospital's parking lot, still in their evening clothes. It was always on her mind and memories of the horrors plagued her for the rest of her life."</p><p>The sheer magnitude of casualties prompted overwhelmed physicians to try experimental new procedures that were later successfully used to treat thousands of battlefield casualties. Instead of cutting off blisters and using dyes and tannic acid to treat burned tissues, which can harden the skin, they applied gauze coated with petroleum jelly. Doctors also refined the formula for using plasma--the fluid portion of blood and a medical technology that was just four years old--to replenish bodily liquids that evaporated because of the loss of the protective covering of skin.</p>
From Forgotten Lab Experiment to Wonder Drug<p>In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the curative powers of penicillin, which promised to eradicate infectious pathogens that killed millions every year. But the road to mass producing enough of the highly unstable mold was littered with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and it remained a forgotten laboratory curiosity for over a decade. But Fleming never gave up and penicillin's eventual rescue from obscurity was a landmark in scientific history. </p><p>In 1940, a group at Oxford University, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, isolated enough penicillin to test it on twenty-five mice, which had been infected with lethal doses of streptococci. Its therapeutic effects were miraculous—the untreated mice died within hours, while the treated ones played merrily in their cages, undisturbed. Subsequent tests on a handful of patients, who were brought back from the brink of death, confirmed that penicillin was indeed a wonder drug. But Britain was then being ravaged by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, and there were simply no resources to devote to penicillin during the Nazi onslaught.</p><p>In June of 1941, two of the Oxford researchers, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, embarked on a clandestine mission to enlist American aid. Samples of the temperamental mold were stored in their coats. By October, the Roosevelt Administration had recruited four companies—Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle—to team up in a massive, top-secret development program. Merck, which had more experience with fermentation procedures, swiftly pulled away from the pack and every milligram they produced was zealously hoarded.</p><p>After the nightclub fire, the government ordered Merck to dispatch to Boston whatever supplies of penicillin that they could spare and to refine any crude penicillin broth brewing in Merck's fermentation vats. After working in round-the-clock relays over the course of three days, on the evening of December 1<sup>st</sup>, 1942, a refrigerated truck containing thirty-two liters of injectable penicillin left Merck's Rahway, New Jersey plant. It was accompanied by a convoy of police escorts through four states before arriving in the pre-dawn hours at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dozens of people were rescued from near-certain death in the first public demonstration of the powers of the antibiotic, and the existence of penicillin could no longer be kept secret from inquisitive reporters and an exultant public. The next day, the <em>Boston Globe</em> called it "priceless" and <em>Time</em> magazine dubbed it a "wonder drug."</p><p>Within fourteen months, penicillin production escalated exponentially, churning out enough to save the lives of thousands of soldiers, including many from the Normandy invasion. And in October 1945, just weeks after the Japanese surrender ended World War II, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. But penicillin didn't just save lives—it helped build some of the most innovative medical and scientific companies in history, including Merck, Pfizer, Glaxo and Sandoz. </p><p>"Every war has given us a new medical advance," concludes Marshall. "And penicillin was <em>the</em> great scientific advance of World War II."</p>
Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family