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.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.