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."
At age 20, Levi-Montalcini had finally had enough. "I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father," she is quoted as saying, and asked his permission to finish high school and pursue a career in medicine. When her father reluctantly agreed, Levi-Montalcini was ecstatic: In just under a year, she managed to catch up on her mathematics, graduate high school, and enroll in medical school in Turin.
By 1936, Levi-Montalcini had graduated medical school at the top of her class and decided to stay on at the University of Turin as a research assistant for histologist and human anatomy professor Guiseppe Levi. Levi-Montalcini started studying nerve cells and nerve fibers – the tiny, slender tendrils that are threaded throughout our nerves and that determine what information each nerve can transmit. But it wasn't long before another enormous obstacle to her scientific career reared its head.
Science Under a Fascist Regime
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.
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.
"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 Post-War Discovery
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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," said Bill Mobley, Chair of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Her Lasting Legacy
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.
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."
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”