Athira Sets New Course After Leen Kawas is Ousted as CEO

Photo courtesy of Athira Pharma

Photo courtesy of Athira Pharma

Late Thursday, Athira announced that Kawas had resigned from her position as CEO and president of the company.

Courtesy of Athira Pharma

Shares of Athira Pharma are rapidly climbing in premarket trading after the company announced it has ousted Leen Kawas from her role as chief executive officer following the conclusion of an investigation into data manipulation charges surrounding her doctoral research.

In June, Kawas was placed on a temporary leave of absence following initial reports that she altered the images in her thesis. The committee found that Kawas altered images in her 2011 doctoral dissertation and in at least four research papers that she co-authored while a graduate student at Washington State University.

Those research papers were published between 2011 and 2014. However, the committee stressed that its lead candidate remains clear of any issue with Kawas’ data manipulation while she was a doctoral student. The company noted that the U.S. Patent Office issued the company a patent covering ATH-1017 in June 2021. The committee “found that neither this patent nor the underlying patent application cites any of the papers the special committee found contained images altered by Dr. Kawas.”

Late Thursday, Bothell, Washington-based Athira announced that Kawas had resigned from her position as CEO and president of the company. Chief Operating Officer Mark Litton, who has been temporarily serving as CEO while the board investigated the claims, has now stepped into that role full time and will continue to lead the company as it seeks to develop ATH-1017 as a potential treatment for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

Kelly A. Romano, chairman of the Athira Board of Directors, said the board felt it was in the best interest of Athira and its pipeline of neurodegenerative disease assets if Kawas left the company. Romana stressed that Kawas’ doctoral work at Washington State University that contained altered data did not involve ATH-1017. However, there are some questions as to whether or not her research has guided other efforts at Athira, which has raised concern among investors due to the question of data integrity.

Since the revelations regarding the altered data in her thesis, the company’s stock has taken a significant hit. The day before Kawas’ suspension became publicly known, the company stock was trading at $20.87 per share. It has since lost about half its value, which has set the stage for lawsuits brought against the company on behalf of shareholders.

Last year, Athira was able to secure a $15 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health to advance ATH-1017 into Phase II studies. As BioSpace previously reported, a recent report suggests that Athira used the tainted Western blot images in its application for the NIH grant, which could set the company up for additional legal troubles.

Litton, the newly-appointed CEO, expressed confidence in the therapeutic potential of ATH-1017, which is designed to enhance HGF/MET, which plays a role in maintaining neuronal health and function. In Phase Ia and Ib studies, Athira reported that ATH-1017 increased high-frequency gamma power levels. Those are the frequency band associated with learning, memory and cognitive function.

ATH-1017 is currently being studied in Phase II and Phase II/III clinical trials. These trials are currently enrolling over 375 patients to further evaluate the safety and the impact of ATH-1017 on cognition in mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s patients over six months.

“I am honored to receive this opportunity to lead Athira forward along with our dedicated team to help make life better for all our loved ones suffering from these debilitating diseases,” Litton said in a statement.

In addition to Litton at the helm, Athira’s board also announced that Rachel Lenington, the company’s chief technology officer and head of Product Development Strategy, will succeed Litton in the role of COO.

“Athira remains absolutely committed to the integrity of scientific research in its mission to restore neuronal health for those suffering from neurological diseases, so that patients can regain their memories, lives, and family relationships,” Romano added.