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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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CTI's Bianco: Controversial and complex CEO

Dr. James (Jim) Bianco, M.D., was an up-from-poverty son of Italian immigrants, just out of medical school in New York, when he was recruited by E. Donnall Thomas to come to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to join its pioneering bone marrow transplantation team. The work of the team would bring Thomas a Nobel Prize for Medicine and launch some team members, including Bianco, on careers pursuing cures for cancer. Bianco has resigned suddenly from the company he founded in 1991 to find a cure for blood-related cancers. During more than a quarter century as chairman and CEO of what is now CTI Biopharma, he became one of the area's most intriguing CEOs, a complex and controversial leader praised by those who experienced his moral and philanthropic support and criticized by others who focused on his high-spending ways. Bianco has just turned 60 and whether he or his board decided it was time for him to leave isn't certain, and really doesn't matter except as fodder for cocktail conversation for those who knew of him, or knew him. Among the latter there's a conviction, summed up by one mutual friend: "He'll be doing something interesting within a year and his interests are so broad, it won't necessarily be in medicine." Bianco's challenges in seeking to find new cancer-fighting innovations and his confrontations with regulators over those drug-focused efforts were well documented over time by local media and wrapped up in a Seattle Times article following his sudden departure on October 2. The headline over The Times' story, "CEO Bianco retires after 25 years running profitless CTI Biopharma," was, for those aware of the long adversarial relationship that existed between him and the media, an amusing final putdown. But the person behind the controversies is always more intriguing to me. So it has been with Bianco, with whom I visited frequently over the years, usually while planning for columns exploring various aspects of Bianco and his involvements, including but beyond his company's business performance. Bianco, who received his B.S. in biology and physics from New York University and his M.D. from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was high visibility in his business and also highly visible in fund-raising efforts for his special causes, though not in a way to designed to attract personal credit. Those personal causes included the Hope Heart Institute, where he and his wife, Sue, won the Wings of Hope award in 2002 and where he's helped revamp the key fund-raising event, and Gilda's Club, the cancer-support organization whose continued existence was largely due to Bianco's personal support. In addition he was long closely involved in the annual Celebrity Waiter event during the years that the Leukemia Society was the beneficiary of the most successful event of its kind in the country. He was long involved with Gilda's Club, named for the late comedian Gilda Radner, and when I once asked him about that involvement, he explained "Gilda's provides that other kind of Medicine, the kind you can't get in hospitals or clinics but that place where family, kids, friends etc have support. It's a great cause, but because they don't do research they're not sexy so funding in these times is tough. That's why I stay involved. It's in our (CTI's) DNA." Bianco's struggles with media coverage, usually over some aspect of the fact that CTI raised and went through about $1.8 billion without turning a profit in its quest for a successful cancer drug undoubtedly played a role in the wild ride investors went on. The stock price peaked in the mid $80s but spent most of the past decade bouncing between a few dollars a share and a few dimes. As one Bianco supporter put it, "let's just say the media and Jim Bianco don't like each other very much," the tension possibly due in part to the fact Bianco enjoys the perks go with the CEO role and is a competitive kind of guy who doesn't shrink from a fight. The latter isn't surprising given his Bronx upbringing as a second-generation Italian kid in a household shared by up to 20 relatives at a time in an environment where "you were okay as long as you didn't leave the few square blocks of our neighborhood." Then he smiled as he recalled that his bus to high school made its closest stop 10 blocks from his home. "Every day I sprinted to the bus because if you couldn't get there faster than anyone else, you were a statistic." He admits he didn't do very well academically in high school, but by the time he found himself at NYU, he recalls that a major disappointment was the lone "B" he received among his "A's." Bianco had a love of the arts from a young age, an involvement that actually brought him into life-saving contact with his most famous patient and ultimately one of his closest friends. As I wrote in a column a few years ago, the first meeting between Jose Carreras and the young physician who would have a key role in the life-saving treatment for his rare form of leukemia turned out to be a bonding moment for the opera singer and a fan "blown away" at being his doctor. "I was a fellow at The Hutch working with Doctor Thomas when they told me a singer from West Side Story, the opera, was coming in for a transplant and since I was from New York, they thought I might know him," recalled Bianco. "Since I had been a season ticket holder at the Met, I immediately identified him and was blown away that I was going to have the privilege of being his doc," said Bianco. "When he met me he observed 'you're not from here, you dress different!' When I told him I saw him at the Met and I loved his performance of Carmen, we hit it off." That first meeting almost 30 years ago was likely on the minds of both Bianco and Carreras when the famed creator of "The Three Tenors" came to Seattle for a special event at Benaroya Hall. The event, billed as "A celebration of life and friendship," was to celebrate both the 25th anniversary of Carrera's victory over cancer and the 90th birthday of Dottie Thomas, wife of the Nobel-prize-winning doctor. The "private performance" recital for about 500 invitees who paid $250 each to support a research fellowship benefiting the Jose Carreras Research Institute and The Hutch, was sponsored by Bianco's company. "When I learned Dottie was turning 90, coupled with the fact that September, 1987, was the month I admitted Jose to the Hutch for his transplant, there was no better tribute to both of these milestones than to bring Jose back to the U.S. for a celebration," Bianco said.
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