While attending the University of Turin Medical School, Rita Levi-Montalcini became interested in studying the developing nervous system. After graduating in 1936, she started advanced studies in neurology and psychology, but was kicked out of school by Mussolini’s 1938 Race Laws which barred Jews from having a professional or academic career. During World War II, she turned her bedroom into a laboratory and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. In 1946 Levi-Montalcini went to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri to work with Viktor Hamburger, a prominent embryologist. During their research on cancerous tissues, they noticed that a particular type of mouse tumor spurred nerve growth when implanted into chick embryos, suggesting the tumor was releasing a substance that stimulated the growth of nerves. They named this substance nerve growth factor (NGF). A colleague of Levi-Montalcini, biochemist Stanley Cohen, was able to isolate the NGF, a protein subunit, from the tumor. For this discovery, Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with her colleague Stanley Cohen.

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