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Biotech company Athira Pharma, which is in turmoil after its chief executive was found to have published research containing altered images, now faces a new concern: It cited the allegedly doctored papers in a federal grant application. This creates the potential for the government or whistleblowers to pursue legal action to force the company to repay not only the $15 million it received to fund its work but also additional penalties.

Three altered papers co-authored by former chief executive Leen Kawas — who has been placed on leave — were referenced in an Athira application for funding from the National Institutes of Health, which STAT obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. This makes the Seattle-based company potentially liable for False Claims Act damages, according to two legal experts, meaning Athira could be on the hook for three times the grant funds, or $45 million.


“If a company is seeking a grant from, say, the NIH and they’re doing so on the basis of false records or statements, that’s absolutely potentially actionable,” Edward Arens, a whistleblower attorney and partner with Phillips & Cohen LLP in San Francisco, told STAT.

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