A Novartis executive who blew the whistle on a potential kickback scheme involving the cancer drug Afinitor and allegedly lost her job over it was awarded nearly $1.5 million by a New Jersey state jury.

Dr. Min Amy Guo, executive director of the health economics and outcomes research group at Novartis, alleges in her whistleblower lawsuit that she was fired for objecting to a proposed Afinitor study by the drug distributor McKesson Corp. Dr. Guo raised concerns that the study appeared to be a kickback to McKesson to help boost Afinitor sales.

The McKesson study, which Novartis ultimately called off, was to examine the use of Afinitor as a drug to treat breast cancer. McKesson had acquired U.S. Oncology Inc., one of the nation’s largest networks of community-based oncologists, in 2010 – just a couple years before Novartis planned to bolster sales of the cancer drug with the study.

According to Law 360, lawyers for Dr. Guo said she believed the study would also violate a corporate integrity agreement that Novartis entered into in 2010 as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice resolving fraud claims.

Dr. Guo’s whistleblower concerns in the summer of 2012 slowed down McKesson’s Afinitor study and caused it to miss the drug’s launch. As a result, Novartis retaliated against Dr. Guo by terminating her, her complaint alleges.

After a three-day deliberation, the jury found the drug maker violated Dr. Guo’s whistleblower protections under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act and awarded her $1,816,040. The jury also awarded Novartis $345,360 on its counterclaim that Dr. Guo violated company policy.

Novartis lawyers dispute the jury’s findings and say that the drug maker fired Dr. Guo because she violated company policy, not because she expressed concerns about the Afinitor study. Novartis says it plans to appeal the decision.

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