The Polymath Molecule
From cornea to retina, NGF’s regenerative and neuroprotective potential seems immense. What does the future hold for this versatile little neurotrophin?
Rita Levi-Montalcini led an interesting life. Born in Turin on April 22nd 1909, she wanted to become a writer in her teenage years. Instead, she went to the University of Turin’s medical school, graduating with an MD in 1936, and worked in the laboratory of the noted neurobiologist, Giuseppe Levi. Political events conspired to take that position away from Levi-Montalcini – Hitler’s growing influence over Benito Mussolini meant that in 1938, Il Duce introduced the Manifesto of Race, which banned Jews from positions in government, banking and education, robbing Rita of her job. But Rita continued her work – in her bedroom in her Turin home, examining the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, then after the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, from a corner of the shared living space in a building in Florence, where she and her family had fled. In 1947, Rita took a position in Viktor Hamburger’s laboratory at St. Louis’ Washington University, and it was there that she and the biochemist Stanley Cohen made the discovery that would, over three decades later, win them the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Levi-Montalcini had observed that when tumors from mice were transplanted to chick embryos, they induced potent growth of the chick embryo nervous system – specifically sensory and sympathetic nerves, even when there was no direct contact between chick embryo and tumor. Rita’s conclusion was simple: the tumor releases a “nerve growth-promoting factor” that had a selective action on certain types of nerves. Stanley Cohen’s contribution was to use his skills as a biochemist to help the Hamburger lab identify and purify what was then called simply “nerve growth factor”, or NGF – and he went on to discover a very useful, enriched source of NGF, the mouse salivary gland, and later, to uncover another trophic factor: epidermal growth factor (EGF).
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