Creating an Alzheimer’s treatment

Leen Kawas moved to US at 21; researched neuroregeneration, studied pharmacology at WSU

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COURTESY OF LEEN KAWAS

WSU alumna Leen Kawas moved to the U.S. to study pharmacology. She started her own biotech company, which is conducting clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease drug treatments.

EMMA LEDBETTER, Evergreen reporter

For WSU alumna Leen Kawas, developing a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease means solving a problem that affects many individuals and families — including her own.

“My grandmother died from Alzheimer’s,” Kawas said. “She couldn’t appreciate [my research] at that point — it was too late.”

Kawas is CEO of Athira Pharma, a Seattle-based biotechnology company developing treatments for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

When she was 21 years old, Kawas moved to the United States from Jordan, where she earned her doctor of pharmacy degree. The president of the University of Jordan was a WSU alum and suggested she apply to WSU to continue her education, Kawas said.

“I visited in the summer, and you know how Pullman is in the summer — it’s just amazing,” Kawas said. “It was a huge transition. I lived in cities all my life … but I loved it.”

Although Pullman itself was a big factor in her decision, Kawas said she was drawn to WSU because of the research opportunities and different professors she met when she visited.

Kawas joined Joe Harding’s lab in WSU’s Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, where she researched molecules involved in neuroregeneration, she said. After she graduated, she stayed on as Harding’s lab director.

WSU wanted Harding to find a company to bring his lab’s technology to the public sector, he said, so he asked Kawas to help start it.

“She’s an amazing young scientist,” Harding said. “We’re lucky to have her now as the leader of Athira — she’s my boss now, which is good.”

Kawas is a semi-expert in every aspect of the company, Harding said, from patents to regulatory issues, to packaging.

“She has no fear about learning new things; she has the self-confidence to do that,” Harding said. “If she doesn’t know it, she will learn it.”

Being part of and learning from a dynamic team is a big aspect of her job, Kawas said, and she enjoys getting to learn and be an entrepreneur with her company.

Kawas is a woman working in a rich man’s world, but she has gained a lot of respect for her ability to get the job done, Harding said.

“Being a young woman in this industry … you need to work twice as hard,” Kawas said. “It’s more rewarding when you get to the immediate goal.”

Athira Pharma is currently conducting clinical trials on a possible drug treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, Kawas said.

Unlike most dementia treatments, which attempt to renew proteins that form plaques in the brain, Athira is using molecules already found in the brain to supercharge the brain’s repair process, Harding said. Plaques are a consequence of damage that is caused by something that occurs before they form. With this treatment, the damage could be repaired before becoming a problem.

“My hope for [Kawas] is that she is able to lead the development of therapies for some of the worst diseases out there that we have no treatments for,” Harding said, “and I think that’s what she wants to do, too.”