Leen Kawas, President & CEO of Athira Pharma

February 17, 2021


Leen Kawas, 2019 Class of Young Leaders

Q. Athira Pharma closed a $204 million Initial Public Offering in September, a huge milestone. You and your team rang the Nasdaq Closing Bell in celebration. What does being a publicly-traded company mean for Athira’s ability to pursue its goals?

Our funding from the public market will allow us to advance our drug candidates through clinical development, bringing us closer to being able to bring therapies to patients. Going public also increases visibility for the company and its mission, allowing us to expand our investor base, attract top talent, and increase access to capital-raising opportunities to continue to fund organic growth.

It’s important to us to increase awareness for Athira and the investigational products we are developing.  We will continue to work on increasing awareness around our developmental pipeline, the novel mechanism of action of our clinical drug candidate ATH-1017, and the innovative ways we are tackling neurodegenerative disease clinical research.

Q. Athira recently began a phase 2/3 clinical trial of its therapeutic candidate ATH-1017 for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Can you tell us more about this drug’s potential for improving the lives of Alzheimer’s patients?

Athira has two on-going clinical trials for our investigational therapeutic candidate ATH-1017 for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The trials – called LIFT-AD and ACT-AD are evaluating the safety and efficacy of ATH-1017.

ATH-1017 uses a novel approach and is designed to activate a brain repair pathway the hepatocyte growth factor (HGF)/MET target. This target promotes survival of brain cells and boosts learning and memory. Our approach focuses on network recovery and information transmission in the brain, which has the potential to restore memories and improve the quality of life of people impacted by Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

At Athira we have been innovative in designing our clinical trials and optimizing the endpoints for our potentially pivotal trial – LIFT-AD. Alzheimer’s is a complex disease where several things are changing at the same time. Continued progress is underway in our clinical studies for Alzheimer’s. This is a collaborative endeavor involving not only Athira, but the clinical sites, physicians, individuals with Alzheimer’s, and their caregivers.

Q. A lot of other therapies have failed in the past. What makes this candidate different?

The drugs we are developing are small molecules that are designed to reach the brain and activate a repair pathway. While other drug research efforts aim to slow the disease’s progression, our approach not only offers the potential to slow disease progression but improve cognitive impairment and reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Our approach is novel and agnostic to the underlying pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. It’s different because it focuses on network recovery and information transmission in the brain, which has the potential to improve dementia symptoms and cognitive impairment as well as stop or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Our lead drug candidate activates HGF/MET signaling. This target has been shown in animal models of Alzheimer’s to promote formation of new functional synaptic connections, induce long-term potentiation, and boost memory. Activating HGF/MET with ATH-1017 has the potential to promote neuron regeneration. The goal is to help restore some of the brain functions lost to Alzheimer’s. This approach is different from that of other drug candidates that aim to break up beta amyloid and tau proteins to slow the disease’s progression.

Q. You began your career as a scientist. What initially drew you to science and to addressing unmet medical needs?

I was drawn to science at an early age when I watched cancer take the life of my grandmother. Years later my mother passed away when I was 18. At that time, I started studying pharmacy in Jordan, and earned a Pharmacy degree from the University of Jordan in 2008.

My other grandmother died from Alzheimer’s disease which solidified my quest to pursue research for a treatment for the disease. I felt at that point that pursuing a PhD to work on drug development would complement my professional experience and potentially could make an impact. I quickly realized that to translate science into products and therapies that can help people, we needed a vehicle, and this is where my interest in entrepreneurship and business started, which lead to the cofounding (2011) and building Athira up to this stage.

Now in 2021, Athira is a publicly traded late clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing small molecules to restore neuronal health and stop neurodegeneration. Our mission is to apply our drug’s novel mechanism of action with the potential to provide patients with cognitive improvement and alter the course neurological disease progression.

Q. When challenges arise, what keeps you grounded and focused on your goals?

The team at Athira keeps me grounded and focused. At Athira we have brought together a diverse team from various backgrounds. The sharing of ideas and innovation is what motivates me, even when challenges arise.

I always get inspired by a team willing to take chances and welcome all ideas. Through this collaborative environment, brainstorming is a regular occurrence. We do our best to encourage innovation and creativity from the team. Our corporate culture is that if one plan does not work, we are going to find a new way and we will make it happen.

In the end, our primary goal at Athira is to advance therapies that can positively impact people’s lives. We remain constantly focused on this goal and strive to do all we can to make this goal a reality.

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