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Women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics have historically been thin on the ground - or at least, barely visible. Which is why when one comes to light, it’s a moment to celebrate. Imagine our delight then, when we discovered the genius behind The LYMA Formula’s tenth ingredient was Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist, Rita Levi-Montalcini. A Jewish survivor of the Second World War in fascist Italy, she led an extraordinary life that saw her turn her every disadvantage into an advantage. She died at the age of 103 leaving a legacy in science, politics and mouse smuggling.
Rita was born in Turin, Italy, in 1909. Her father was authoritarian in nature and disapproved of a woman being educated beyond finishing school. When she was 20, Rita says, “I realised I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father, and asked him permission to engage in a professional career.”
Despite being undereducated at this point, she managed to study a year’s worth of Greek, Latin and Maths in eight months before entering medical school in Turin. She graduated in 1936 with the highest distinction in medicine and surgery but, inspired by her mentor Giuseppe Levi, was no longer sure if being a doctor was right for her.
Just as Rita made her mind up to pivot to research, Mussolini’s rise intervened: his Race Laws of 1938 prevented “non-Aryans” from stepping into university posts or, indeed, practicing medicine.
Undeterred, she and her older brother Gino built a secret laboratory in her bedroom. She made her own microsurgical equipment using domestic sewing needles and watchmaker’s tweezers she modified and reshaped herself. She began investigations into nerve growth in chick embryos by buying fertile eggs, which meant she didn’t attract attention to her work that could have led to her imprisonment or death. As a bonus, her experiments could be eaten afterwards.
“I should thank Mussolini for having declared me to be of an inferior race,” Rita later said. “If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel Prize.”
Rita Levi-Montalcini ended up employing an assistant: her old medical school mentor Giuseppe. Together they devised a theory around embryonic nerve cells that contradicted the popular model proposed previously by Viktor Hamburger. Though they couldn’t publish in Italy as Jews, their results were published abroad in the early 1940s to growing acclaim.
Rita’s research was waylaid by the German invasion of Italy in 1943, and particularly the bombing of Turin. She fled to Florence with her family, living under false names and protected by non-Jewish friends to survive the Holocaust. After the liberation of Florence in 1944, Levi-Montalcini volunteered her medical services to the Allied health service. She worked as a doctor-cum-nurse in refugee camps, helping patients while working in conditions hazardous both to those she treated and to herself. She and her family returned to Turin in 1945.
Levi-Montalcini's research was becoming increasingly respected in foreign journals. In 1946 Professor Viktor Hamburger – the same one whose research she had contradicted – invited her to take a fellowship under him at Washington University in St Louis. She ended up staying as a research associate for another 30 years.
In 1952, she published her most important work, which eventually led to her 1986 Nobel Prize: she isolated nerve growth factors from observations of certain cancerous tissues, which cause extremely rapid nerve cell growth. This discovery has helped to deepen our understanding of senile dementia, delayed wound healing, tumour diseases and deformities.
In the 1950s, Levi-Montalcini was known for carrying her experimental mice subjects in her handbag from St Louis to Brazil. This was so she could use them for research with Carlos Chagas, who had the laboratory facilities she needed.
Rita was never afraid of fighting for a more equal scientific world. She frequently fought for more gender parity in research and worked to make sure other scientists had access to funds, equipment and support. She was the first director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, the European Brain Research Institute, and established the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation to provide African women “with the tools for a full development of their capabilities”.
In the 90s, Levi-Montalcini identified the endogenous compound palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), which is an important modulator of the mast cell: a resident cell of connective tissue that is part of the immune and neuroimmune systems. This improved understanding of PEA, and the mast cell, resulted in discoveries about the endocannabinoid system, and new forms of PEA designed specifically to improve bioavailability. The LYMA ingredient Levagen®+ is a descendent of these developments.
From 2001 until her death, Rita was a Senator for Life in the Italian Senate, an honour granted for her scientific work. In 2006 – when she was 97 – she was crucial to a budgetary dispute: the deciding voice, she threatened to withdraw support unless the government did a u-turn on its cuts to science funding. The funding was restored and the budget passed.
Rita passed away in 2012. At 103, she was the longest-living Nobel Laureate. Four years later, a spontaneous orchid was named in her honour: Ophrys × montalciniae.