Former Duke Professor Toshio Narahashi, Noted Pharmacologist, Dies

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Toshio Narahashi, right, with John Moore

Internationally known pharmacologist and former Duke professor Toshio Narahashi, who for more than four decades directed path-breaking research on the actions of toxins on nerve cells, died in Chicago on April 21.  He was 86.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Narahashi received an undergraduate degree in agriculture from the University of Tokyo in 1948. He began his career studying insecticides in an entomology lab where his findings helped form the basis of 26 published papers. After receiving his doctorate in neurotoxicology in 1960 from the University of Tokyo, he took a postdoctoral position at the University of Chicago.

In 1962 Dan Tosteson, at John Moore's suggestion, recruited Narahashi to Duke's Department of Physiology and Pharmacology as an assistant professor.  Here Narahashi and Moore collaborated using Moore's new voltage clamp technique to determine the action of Narahashi’s purified sample of tetrodotoxin (TTX), the deadly poison found in puffer fish.  

The collaboration was, initially, brief. Narahashi's visa required that he return to Japan before 1963 for two years before returning to Duke to assume his faculty position. Thus experiments were conducted around-the-clock throughout the Christmas holidays and on Dec. 31, 1962, Narahashi took films of oscilloscope records, barely dried, to Japan for analysis. The experiments showed that TTX selectively blocks sodium channels in nerve axons. This finding was of immense importance as TTX became a widely used experimental tool in neuroscience.

Returning to Duke, Narahashi continued to collaborate with Moore until establishing his own lab, training a large cadre of postdocs and students in the field of cellular neuropharmacology with special emphasis on insecticides. He rose through the ranks to become, in 1973, the vice chairman of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

In 1977 he left Duke to become Professor and Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Northwestern University Medical School. There he conducted research described by peers as "trailblazing" and mentored many young researchers who went on to make their own contributions to the study of toxicology. Narahashi stepped down as department chairman in 1994. However, he remained active at Northwestern, working until the day he died.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Kyoko; a son, Taro; a daughter, Keiko; two grandchildren; five brothers; and one sister.

To read the full Chicago Tribune obituary, click here.