Shares of Athira Pharma, a Bothell-based biopharmaceutical company, dropped 38% on Friday, after the company announced late Thursday it has placed CEO Leen Kawas on leave.
The stock closed Friday $11.15, down from its previous close of $18.23, making it Nasdaq’s second worst performing stock of the day.
In a brief statement Thursday, the company said its board is reviewing Kawas’ conduct during her doctoral research at Washington State University (WSU), but did not provide any details.
Stat News, a widely respected health- and medical-news site, reported the review is in response to allegations that four scientific papers on which Kawas is listed as lead author contain altered images of test results from experiments.
Questions about Kawas’ work had previously been raised on PubPeer, a nonprofit online forum on which users host discussions about specific scientific papers. Many of those concerns were around images of lab results that commenters said appear to have been copied between experiments.
Elisabeth Bik, who holds a doctorate in microbiology and works as a California-based research- integrity consultant, is one author who raised questions on PubPeer. In an interview with The Seattle Times, she said she noticed a variety of issues on papers that Kawas has authored.
Bik said several of the papers called out on PubPeer included results that to her appeared to have been “photoshopped,” and other images of results looked suspiciously familiar across research papers. However, she said, some other issues raised in the forum could also be explained by honest errors.
In totality, “I would be worried of the research integrity,” said Bik.
It is unclear if any of the papers that drew questions on PubPeer are involved in the review being conducted by Athira’s Board.
A spokesperson for Athira declined to comment beyond the company’s press release.
WSU issued a statement Friday that it, too, was reviewing claims of Kawas’ research misconduct while at the university. David Wasson, a spokesperson for WSU, confirmed to The Seattle Times that the university owns stock in Athira as part of a licensing agreement that allows the company to use intellectual property owned by the university.
A patent owned by Athira lists Kawas as a co-inventor, and makes reference to various studies that she led.
For reviewers to effectively assess issues of this kind, it is likely they will need to retrieve original lab results from experiments, Bik said. However, Kawas’ doctoral thesis was completed nearly a decade ago, and labs are generally only required to keep original lab results for certain periods of time.
In June 2020, Athira raised $85 million in a private investing round. Four months later, the company raised $204 million in an initial public offering that saw shares debut at $17.
The company is working on treatments for restoring neuronal health and stopping neurodegeneration, with late-stage clinical trials ongoing for molecules treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s disease. There is no known cure, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved some medications that may delay the onset of symptoms and others that may alleviate symptoms.
Athira’s leading therapeutic candidate, ATH-1017, is targeted at enhancing the brain’s own repair systems, which in turn may combat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dementia. In its May first quarter earnings results, the company said it planned to start a Phase 2 trial with ATH-1017 by the end of 2021.
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