Athira Pharma is Living Legacy to Founder’s Legendary Mother

Leen Kawas

Leen Kawas, president and chief executive officer of Athira Pharma, pictured above. 

Leen Kawas, president and chief executive officer of Athira Pharma, comes from a long line of successful, trailblazing women who placed an emphasis on inspiring the next generation, and she is driven to defeat neurodegenerative disease, which has stolen two of those women from her.

Kawas lost her mother to a combination of neurodegenerative indications at the tender age of 17. While this was incredibly difficult, Kawas wanted to dispel the notion that people should pity her.

“I think people deal with grief in different ways. For me, I didn’t want people to feel sorry, because I had a great mother. When you lose a mother, you still have the memories and the role model, and the impact that you have. I wanted to continue her legacy. She equipped us to deal even with this situation. I redirected the energy into something that actually worked out very well,” said Kawas.

Athira’s lead candidate, ATH-1017, intends to promote the activity of a naturally occurring repair pathway, HGF/MET, in the brain. The company is running a Phase II trial, ACT-AD and Phase II/III LIFT-AD study in parallel, both enrolling mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s patients.

Contrary to the predominant approach to Alzheimer’s disease, Athira, which raised a total of $204 million when it went public in September 2020, aims to actually reverse memory loss.

“Once you activate this target, we would expect to see a recovery of brain cells, health, network activity, and brain connections. The unique thing about our approach is, we are looking not only to slow down the disease but eventually for improvement,” Kawas said. “The industry has been more focused on removing protein toxins, which is expected to slow down the disease. What we’re really aiming to do is potentially show improvement and undo the disease.”

This vision is in line with the intuition to “do something more” that Kawas has felt since she lost her grandmother to cancer as a young child.

“I was seven when my first grandmother passed away, and at that point, there weren’t a lot of options for cancer patients, so we just had to live with the reality that she passed away at a relatively young age. The idea that we couldn’t do anything about it was difficult to understand, and that was the first time when I said ‘I’m going to grow up and find a cure for cancer. This is crazy.”

When her mother got sick, this mission naturally transferred to the neurodegenerative space.

Kawas knows all-too-well the dramatic toll that loss of memory and cognition associated with Alzheimer’s disease can have on people. 

“The person changes with dementia, and sometimes these behavioral changes become really difficult to deal with. They’re afraid because they don’t recognize the people around them, and they become aggressive. I experienced that with my grandmother. If you can modulate and change these two components, I think it will have a big impact on caregivers and quality of life for people,” she said.

Kawas, who grew up in Amman, Jordan, had planned on advancing her academic research career at the University of Pittsburgh. But life had other plans, and when the opportunity arose to co-found Athira, she experienced the magic of the “American Dream”.

“I e-mailed the [university], and the response that I got – which again highlights how amazing the U.S. is – is ‘this is a great opportunity for you. If it works out, it’s going to be the best decision of your life. If it doesn’t, after a year, you still have a position with us.’ You would never get this response anywhere else. It’s just the endorsement of entrepreneurship,” Kawas said. 

“I think people who are in the U.S. think this is normal, the culture that we have. Like, it’s normal to be an entrepreneur, it’s normal to endorse ideas, it’s normal to endorse talent. I remember the first time that I got a million-dollar investment. That was like, ‘you guys don’t understand how unique this is,” she continued.

Kawas comes by her business acumen honestly. In an era where this was unusual for a woman, Kawas’s mother, Mrs. Quteishat, a writer who obtained a master’s degree in logic, managed the business operations at the University of Jordan. For a career encore, she ran one of the largest hospitals in Jordan. 

“That was very unique for a woman at that point. Jordan is a very small country, it’s smaller than Washington state, so she was very well-known. It was amazing to be recognized because of your mother, and it also wasn’t that common at that time,” she explained.

In 2017, Kawas become a mother herself to a little girl. She explained the impact this has had on her leadership style.

“I think having children made me a better leader; more empathetic. I’m very driven and outcome-oriented, but I think it also gave me the impression that, with every person, there is a life behind them. When we’re working, I can be at my full intensity, but the team feels very comfortable coming to talk to me about something personal,” she said.

Maintaining and promoting connections between women is just as important to Kawas as restoring those in the brain.

“[Becoming a mother] also made me a stronger person; the labor, and just, women’s bodies are so strong. This realization empowers you. If women talk about it more, I think it will empower us as a whole gender.” 

Kawas also spoke to her lived experience of being both a successful biopharma entrepreneur and mother.

“I think the perception of pregnant women and mothers-to-be is still – interesting,” she mused. “But I think as we support each other, as women and as working mothers, and stop this impression that we’re going to slow down, or it’s going to change us, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”  

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