Athira chief executive resigns as company confirms she altered research

The chief executive of biotech Athira Pharma has permanently left the company after papers she published as a graduate student were found to contain altered research. Leen Kawas was suspended in June, after STAT asked the Alzheimer’s research company to comment on the allegations, and Athira announced her resignation as president, chief executive, and member of the board of directors today.

Mark Litton, the company’s chief operating officer, will take Kawas’ place to lead Athira.

Athira’s board of directors’ special committee investigation found that Kawas altered images in at least four research papers she co-authored while she was a graduate student at Washington State University.

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“The company and Dr. Kawas agreed it is in Athira’s best interest to enter this critical next chapter under new leadership,” said Kelly Romano, chair of Athira’s board of directors, in a statement. “Dr. Kawas’s actions at Washington State University took place many years ago and did not involve ATH-1017, Athira’s lead development candidate,” a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s.

The altered images in Kawas’ papers, first reported by STAT, depict Western blots containing several bands that appear repeatedly.

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Though none of the papers were cited in the patent granted to Athira in June 2021 for its lead drug candidate, ATH-1017, the altered research has nevertheless played a role in Athira’s development. Two of the papers were cited in a 2013 patent granted to the company, while three altered papers co-authored by Kawas were referenced in an Athira application for $15 million funding from the National Institutes of Health, which STAT obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

Athira is currently subject to several class-action lawsuits on behalf of shareholders, alleging the company made false and misleading statements about its research to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company remains confident in its lead drug candidate, said Litton, while Romano said Athira “remains absolutely committed to the integrity of scientific research.” Kawas said she supported Athira’s work going forward: “I remain confident in the Company’s ability to realize its mission and bring the Company’s lead development candidates to market.”

Source: STAT