Epidermal growth factor is a signaling molecule that stimulates the growth of epidermal tissues during development and throughout life. Stanley Cohen discovered epidermal growth factor (EGF) during studies of nerve growth factor as a side effect of other experiments. EGF stimulates tissue growth by initiating a variety of cellular mechanisms. This work led to the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Cohen and Rita Levi-Montalcini. At the Nobel Award ceremony Levi-Montalcini focused her acceptance speech on nerve growth factor, while Cohen focused his on epidermal growth factor. Although they presented different topics, they were close collaborators and their combined effort led to the discovery of nerve growth factor. They had worked together in Viktor Hamburger's laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis.

Stanley Cohen published "Purification of a Nerve-Growth Promoting Protein from the Mouse Salivary Gland and its Neuro-Cytoxic Antiserum" in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences in 1960. This paper outlined the successful purification and identification of nerve growth factor (NGF) as a protein, the developmental effects of depriving an embryo of NGF, and the discovery that NGF is also required for the maintenance of the nervous system.

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