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Tuesday, August 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bianco survives bid to oust him as biotech CEO

Seattle Times business reporter

Four directors of Cell Therapeutics, a struggling Seattle biotech company, have submitted their resignations after a failed attempt to oust Chief Executive James Bianco.

"I don't think it was a total surprise," said Phil Nudelman, one of five remaining directors, including Bianco. "The resignations, we didn't know about for sure. What we expected was a very difficult discussion amongst board members who disagreed on the strategy."

Shareholders seemed unfazed by the announcement yesterday of Friday's resignations, with the stock ending the day unchanged at $2.73.

Max Link, Cell Therapeutics chairman since 1996, quit effective Sept. 30. The other three resignations were effective immediately.

Two of the departing directors, Erich Platzer and Silvano Spinelli, joined the board in 2004 after Cell Therapeutics bought the Italian biotech firm Novuspharma. Platzer had been chairman of Novuspharma, and Spinelli had been CEO.

On Friday, Spinelli also resigned his post as Cell Therapeutics' executive vice president of development and managing director of European operations.

In a letter to the board, he wrote he resigned because the board would not "replace James Bianco with a more credible and reliable CEO in the interest of shareholders and the company."

The fourth departing director is John Fluke Jr., chairman of venture-capital company Fluke Capital Management.

Nudelman said the board had been discussing management's strategy for Xyotax, its leading drug candidate that failed in a key trial this spring. The company's strategy has been to file for Food and Drug Administration approval of Xyotax to treat lung cancer.

The disappointing results led Cell Therapeutics to cut 75 jobs in Seattle. In June, it also sold Trisenox, a drug to treat a rare form of leukemia, for $70 million in cash.

The company, founded in 1991 by Bianco and others, hasn't posted an annual profit. In the first half of this year, it had a net loss of $75.3 million.

The company is trying to sell the lease on its corporate jet, which cost $2.3 million in rent last year. Flights by Bianco's wife and guests made up $70,978 of his $1.11 million pay package in 2004.

The CEO upset some shareholders last year when he missed a deadline to repay $3.5 million he had borrowed from the company before such loans were made illegal. He paid back the money, with interest, six months after it was due.

Bianco, 49, was not available for comment yesterday, but company spokeswoman Leah Grant said Cell Therapeutics has "had some difficult challenges recently."

"Not everyone was in agreement about how best to move forward," Grant said.

Nudelman said he hopes to fill one or two of the director openings within the next month.

"These are exciting times, and people are interested," Nudelman said.

"I have great respect and confidence in Dr. Bianco to lead the company through a rough time."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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