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Nobel Prize Laureate Montalcini Dies At 103

Italian biologist Rita Levi Montalcini, who won a Nobel Prize for medicine for her research on the cell, has died in her Rome apartment at the age of 103.

Ms Levi Montalcini built a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom to continue studying in defiance of Fascist anti-Semitic persecution and lived underground during the Second World War to become one of Italy's leading scientists.

During those years, she conducted ground-breaking experiments on chick embryos that laid the foundations for her Nobel-Prize winning studies decades later.

The indefatigable scientist continued to work at her lab in Rome well into her final years.

"What matters is keeping the brain constantly active, even if the body slowly decays," she said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa to mark her 100th birthday.

Her family said she had died on Sunday "after lunch, as if she had fallen asleep".

In a life spanning most of the 20th century, she was a pioneer in the medical and social fields, campaigning for women's rights, including education, and calling on governments to fund scientific research.

Known in her country as the "Lady of the Cells", in 2001 she was made a senator-for-life, one of Italy's highest honours.

Tributes poured in from across the country, with the Rome mayor, Gianni Alemanno, calling her death a loss "for all of humanity".

Ms Levi Montalcini was born into a wealthy Jewish family on April 22, 1909 in Turin, a northern Italian city.

At age 20 she overcame her father's objections that women should not study, and went on to obtain a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936.

She shunned marriage and motherhood to devote herself to science.

"When I was 20 I decided I didn't want to be either a wife or a mother," she said, adding she had never regretted her decision.

In 1947 she moved to the United States, where she would remain for 20 years.

It was there that she discovered the nerve growth factor, or NGF, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells.

The discovery earned her a Nobel Prize in 1986, which she shared with American biochemist Stanley Cohen.

The research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumours, developmental malformations and senile dementia.