The history of the discovery of the nerve growth factor



The Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) is the progenitor of a family of growth factors which is still expanding. The history of its discovery is very colorful; it is a rare combination of scientific reasoning, intuition, fortuities, and good luck. In addition, I believe that the collaboration of three scientists with very different backgrounds contributed to the success: I had grown up in a laboratory of experimental embryology, Dr. Levi-Montalcini came from neurology, and Dr. Stanley Cohen was from biochemistry.

The decision where to begin the history of a discovery is always arbitrary. I shall give my reasons why I begin this story with my wing bud extirpations on chick embryos and the analysis of the effects of the operation on the development of spinal nerve centers, published in 1934. Of course, I am aware of the fact that the analysis of neurogenesis had been pioneered by Dr. R. G. Harrison and his students at Yale University since the beginning of this century. It should be mentioned that their experiments had been done on amphibian embryos. My own interest in problems of neurogenesis dates back to my Ph.D. thesis in the Zoology Department of Professor H. Spemann at the University of Freiburg in (the Federal Republic of) Germany; it dealt with the influence of the nervous system on the development of limbs in frog embryos. After I had obtained some inconclusive results I did the crucial experiment of producing nerveless legs. I removed the lumbar part of the spinal cord and the spinal ganglia before the outgrowth of nerve fibers. The nerveless legs developed normally in every respect, but the muscles atrophied eventually.