Ex-Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas resigns and leaves board after image manipulation investigation

Leen Kawas. (Athira Pharma Photo)

Leen Kawas has formally resigned as CEO of Athira Pharma and is stepping off the board after an investigation found the biotech executive altered images in scientific papers she authored.

Mark Litton, the company’s COO who took over day-to-day leadership responsibilities after Kawas was placed on leave in June, is now CEO and will join the board, the Bothell, Wash.-based company announced Thursday.

Athira said in June it would complete an independent special committee review “stemming from doctoral research Dr. Kawas conducted while at Washington State University.”

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 WSU. The papers set the stage for the company’s current clinical trials for ATH-1017, an agent designed to regenerate brain tissue.

But the company said Thursday that ATH-1017 was not the subject of Kawas’ doctoral research. The company’s patent for ATH-1017 issued in June does not cite the papers with altered images.

“The Company and Dr. Kawas agreed it is in Athira’s best interest to enter this critical next chapter under new leadership,” Athira board chair Kelly Romano said 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. We thank Dr. Kawas for her unwavering focus seeking to make a meaningful difference for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.”

As part of Kawas’ separation agreement, she is eligible to receive a lump sum equivalent to one year of her base salary ($510,000), and will retain previously granted stock options.

“The goal of Athira has always been developing therapies that can reverse the effects of neurodegenerative diseases,” Kawas said in a statement. “This talented team has accomplished significant milestones on the path to realizing this goal and I remain confident in the Company’s ability to realize its mission and bring the Company’s lead development candidates to market.”

Athira is proceeding with an extension of its phase 2/3 trial for people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s.

The company’s stock nosedived following the news of Kawas’ leave in June. It is down 67% this year. The company raised $204 million as part of its IPO last year.

Athira also said today that Rachel Lenington, its CTO and head of product development strategy who joined in June, is now COO. Romano became board chair in August following the death of former board chair Tadataka Yamada.

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