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Biology

Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini dies

Italy's "Lady of the Cells," Rita Levi-Montalcini has passed away aged 103. She was a joint Nobel Prize for Medicine winner in 1986, owing to her work unlocking the mysteries of how cells develop.

epa03520458 (FILER) An undated file photo of Italian Senator for life Rita Levi Montalcini. The Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986 , died at her home in Rome, at the age of 103. She was the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach a 100th birthday. EPA/ANSA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Forschung Italien Rita Levi Montalcini

Italian Rita Levi-Montalcini was the first Nobel laureate in history to reach 100 years of age. She died in her Rome apartment on Sunday, aged 103.

Sometimes called "Lady of the Cells" in Italy, Levi-Montalcini shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with US scientist Stanley Cohen. In joint research, the pair discovered the nerve growth factor substance, a protein that is crucial in the growth, maintenance and survival of nerve cells or neurons.

The research improved our understanding and sometimes the treatment of many major illnesses and injuries, from spinal cord damage to Alzheimer's, dementia and autism to cardiovascular diseases.

She was granted a lifetime position on Italy's Senate in 2001, and was a beloved celebrity in her home country.

"I've lost a bit of sight, and a lot of hearing," Levi-Montalcini wrote on her Facebook page shortly after her 103rd birthday in April. "At conferences I don't see the projections and I don't feel good. But I think more now than I did when I was 20. The body does what it wants. I am not the body, I am the mind."

Research on the run

The Jewish neurologist twice avoided invading Nazi troops during the Second World War and was forced to carry out some of her earliest research projects in a makeshift lab in her bedroom. Laws imposed by Benito Mussolini in 1938 prevented her from working in academia because of her faith.

Levi-Montalcini took up a short-term invitation from the Washington University in St Louis in 1946, then proceeded to stay for around three decades. She and Cohen isolated the nerve growth factor in 1952, six years before Levi-Montalcini was made a full professor.

She returned to Italy in 1975, setting up a research unit in Rome and becoming the first female appointee to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences later that year.

The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, said Levi-Montalcini's death was sad news "for all humanity."

msh/av (AP, dpa, Reuters)