Scientist Toshio Narahashi, expert on pufferfish toxin
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter@suntimesobits April 24, 2013 8:52PM
Updated: May 29, 2013 6:41AM
“Au revoir, Rosa,” said Bond. The yellow eyes blazed briefly. “Farewell, Mister Bond.” The boot, with its tiny steel tongue, flashed out. Bond felt a sharp pain in his right calf. . . .Numbness was creeping up Bond’s body. . . .There was no feeling in his fingers. They seemed as big as cucumbers. . . .Breathing became difficult. . . .Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor.
— Ian Fleming’s “From Russia with Love”
It isn’t every scientist who would cite James Bond’s poisoning by pufferfish toxin in a research paper. But Toshio Narahashi was a scholar with a sense of humor and both feet in the real world, where “From Russia with Love” is a classic book and film. He described one of the best Bond battles — with Russian spy Rosa Klebb — in a 1967 paper he co-authored, titled “Tetrodotoxin’s Highly Selective Blockage of an Ionic Channel.”
One of the world’s foremost experts on Tetrodotoxin — a pufferfish nerve toxin — Mr. Narahashi’s research contributed to pharmacological breakthroughs on drugs that help quiet epileptic seizures and irregular heartbeats, improve anesthesia, and make chemotherapy more tolerable, colleagues said.
Dried, preserved pufferfish decorated his office at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
For an occasional treat, he loved to dine on the flesh of the inflatable fish, prized by gourmands as a rich and rare delicacy — but only when prepared by chefs who’ve been specially trained to serve it without killing the customer.
Sometimes, when Mr. Narahashi ate the gilled guerrilla, he felt the residue of its neurotoxic weaponry. “He said, ‘Oh, numbness around the mouth,’ ’’ said Chau Wu, a professor emeritus from Northwestern University’s medical school.
Mr. Narahashi died of colon cancer Sunday at his Gold Coast home. He was 86.
His career spanned more than half a century, with long tenures at Northwestern and Duke universities. He was “a giant in the field,” said Gary W. Miller, an associate dean at Atlanta’s Emory University. “He’s someone who people in toxicology just idolize.”
“His first papers were over 50 years ago. His papers the last few years — I would always read his papers — they were just among the best,” Miller said.
“He was still writing papers until only recently,” when he took ill, said Jay Yeh, a professor of pharmacology at Northwestern University medical school.
“I saw him almost every day,” said Paula Stern, vice-chair of Northwestern’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry.
“He was doing such great science, but he knew how to apply it to real-world problems,” Miller said. In addition to Tetrodotoxin, he was also considered an expert on insecticides, and specialized in biodegradable ones that acted on insects but not humans, Wu said.
Though a “top gun,” he was exceptionally generous with the pupils he mentored, said Wu. Mr. Narahashi trained an estimated 140 graduate students and other professionals who went on to prestigious jobs in academia and at global chemical companies like DuPont and BASF.
He enjoyed treating friends — and grad students on budgets — to Japanese food at the old Suntory restaurant on Huron Street.
Mr. Narahashi took special interest in acclimating academic newcomers to America. “He would help them settle down, even find bedroom furniture, bedding. He would help them to find a place to shop. In some cases, he would teach them to drive,” Yeh said.
Despite lofty credentials, he could break things down, giving academics real-world advice on how to write a scientific paper (don’t wait till the last minute) and requests for research grants (don’t type all the way to the margins).
He even had helpful hints on menu selections for lunchtime job interviews, Stern said. To avoid stained shirts, “You don’t want to have fried chicken or spaghetti,” he told students and colleagues.
Mr. Narahashi received a Ph.D in neurotoxicology from the University of Tokyo and came to the United States in 1961 to be a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Chicago.
He joined Duke in 1963, where he did breakthrough research, discovering that pufferfish toxin blocks the way in which nerve cells generate electrical signals and regulate the nervous system.
And he learned specialized techniques for working on nerves from Sir Alan Hodgkin, a Nobel prizewinning biophysicist and former president of the Royal Society in England, an organization of some of the world’s most renowned scientists.
Mr. Narahashi joined Northwestern in 1977, where he would chair the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry at the Feinberg School of Medicine. He published 324 papers and 148 chapters and reviews, and edited 11 books.
He had many opportunities to go to a pharmaceutical company and get rich, but “he was so dedicated to training the next generation of scientists,” said Miller.
He also did research on the brain cells of giant squid at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, to investigate how nerves work, Miller said.
In his private time, he enjoyed listening to opera and jogging along the lake.
Mr. Narahashi is survived by his wife of 59 years, Kyoko; his daughter, Keiko; his son, Taro, and two grandchildren.
A memorial is planned from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday inside the Canning Auditorium on the third floor of Prentice Women’s Hospital, 250 E. Superior.