Nobel Prize-winning biologist who was forced to keep work secret from Italy's Fascist regime dies aged 103Rita Levi-Montalcini helped improve knowledge of human cellsHer research led to improved knowledge of tumours and senile dementiaShe continued her research in the face of anti-Semitic persecution in ItalyLevi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for her work in the U.S in 1986
20:58 GMT, 30 December 2012
A Nobel Prize winning scientist who defied Italy's facist regime and and carried out key research into human cells underground during World War Two has died aged 103.
Biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who helped improve our knowledge of tumours and conditions such as senile dementia, died at home in Rome today.
Her death was described as a great loss 'for all of humanity' by Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno who praised her 'civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research of our time.'
Nobel Prize winner: Rita Levi-Montalcini, pictured in the lab in the 1960s (left), and celebrating her 100th birthday in 2009, right, has died at her home in Rome aged 103
Intelligent: Pictured in 2007, Levi-Montalcini worked well into her latter years saying that her mind was as sharp at 100 as it was at the age of 20
Nicknamed Italy's 'Lady of the Cells', Levi-Montalcini bravely went against Benito Mussolini's facist regime in the 1930s creating a makeshift lab in her bedroom to carry on her research after she was barred from carrying on her neurobiology work under new laws banning Jews from universities and major professions.
She later won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986 with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for groundbreaking work carried out in the U.S.
Italy honored Levi-Montalcini in 2001 by making her a senator-for-life.
A petite woman with upswept white hair, she continued her work well into the latter stages of her life.
She said in 2009: 'At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience – than when I was 20.'
Levi-Montalcini was born in April 1909, to a Jewish family in the northern Italian city of Turin.
At the age of 20 she overcame her father's objections that women should not study and obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University.
Groundbreaking: Pictured as a young woman in Italy, left, and in the 1960s, right, Rita Levi-Montalcini's worked helped further our knowledge of tumours and conditions such as senile dementia
She studied under top anatomist Giuseppe Levi, whom she often credited for her own success and for that of two fellow students and close friends, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco, who also became separate Nobel Prize winners.
After graduating, Levi-Montalcini began working as a research assistant in neurobiology but lost her job in 1938 when the facist regime introduced new anti-semetic laws.
Her family decided to stay in Italy and, as World War II neared, Levi-Montalcini began studying the development of chicken embryos in the makeshift lab at her home, and her work would later lead to her major discovery of mechanisms that regulate growth of cells and organs.
With eggs becoming a rarity due to the war, the young scientist cycled around the countryside to buy them from farmers.
History maker: Pictured aged 98 in 2007, Rita Levi-Montalcini was the oldest living Nobel laureate and the first to reach the age of 100
She was soon joined in her secret research by Levi, her university mentor, who was also Jewish and who became her assistant.
Her family were forced to flee Florence in 1943 however when the Nazis invaded Italy and they were forced to live underground.
After the city was liberated she worked as a doctor at a centre for refugees.
In 1947 Levi-Montalcini was invited to the United States, where she remained for more than 20 years – a period she called 'the happiest and most productive' of her life.
During her research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, she discovered nerve growth factor, or NGF, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells.
Sharp minded: Rita Levi-Montalcini worked well into old age and is pictured, left, at the World Summit on Food Security at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome at the age of 100. She is also pictured, right, at a press conference on her 100th birthday in 2009
She showed that when tumors from mice were transplanted to chicken embryos they induced rapid growth of the embryonic nervous system.
She concluded that the tumour released a nerve growth-promoting factor that affected certain types of cells.
The research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumours, developmental malformations, and senile dementia. It also led to the discovery by Stanley Cohen of another substance, epidermal growth factor, which stimulates the proliferation of epithelial cells.
Levi-Montalcini returned to Italy to become the director of the laboratory of cell biology of the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome in 1969.