Hospitals seek link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer

Western Connecticut Health Network (WCHN) has launched a $2.7-million, three-year research study that will investigate the link between new-onset diabetes and pancreatic cancer. The main goal is to detect the often lethal cancer at a curable stage.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal of human malignancies, with five-year survival rates of only 8%. It is on a trajectory to become the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the US by 2020, according to the health network.

Dr. Richard Frank, director of clinical cancer research at the health network, which includes Danbury and Norwalk hospitals, led a  team of physicians and researchers in developing the study.

“The idea for the study came from an increasing appreciation of the link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer in those over 50 years of age. In particular, new-onset diabetes (diagnosed within the past year) is estimated to carry a seven-fold increased risk of the cancer in the first three years after a diagnosis of diabetes,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to attempt to detect pancreatic cancer at a very early stage.”

Although it is estimated that fewer than one out of 100 individuals with new-onset diabetes will develop pancreatic cancer, there is great enthusiasm for the study.

“We need to start somewhere,” said Dr. Steven Brandwein, a gastroenterologist and co-investigator of the study. “Our expansive health care network is uniquely positioned to spearhead this type of research, which requires strong collaboration with primary care physician groups, as well as specialists in endocrinology, radiology, gastroenterology, pathology and surgery, all of whom are part of the network family.”

Study participants will undergo annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the pancreas for three years. A specific MRI protocol was developed by WCHN radiologists Drs. Ronald Lee and James Bauman. Suspicious lesions will be further investigated by a gastroenterologist using a special type of ultrasound (called EUS or endoscopic ultrasound) for the presence of cancer or pre-cancerous changes. Participants will also donate a sample of blood every six months in order to create a serum biobank that may contain the earliest clues of pancreatic cancer at the DNA level.

Since a blood test would be the optimal way to screen for pancreatic cancer, WCHN researchers will use the blood samples to identify a biomarker that does not currently exist.

“This initiative reflects our culture of continuous learning that we believe leads to ground-breaking advances in patient care,” said John M. Murphy, MD, president and CEO of WCHN. “We are extremely grateful to the James Naughton family for their fundraising efforts. This study has been made possible by generous philanthropic support.”

James Naughton, Tony Award-winning star of theater, film and television, and his family hosted A Tribute to Pamela, an evening of musical entertainment featuring Naughton, daughter Keira, a Broadway and television actress; son Greg, singer and songwriter; and daughter-in-law Kelli O’Hara, Tony Award winner for her role as Anna in the King and I. The benefit event, honoring the legacy of Naughton’s late wife Pamela, raised more than $1 million for pancreatic cancer research.

“We need to make serious inroads into the early diagnosis and treatment of this disease,” said Dr. Frank. “We hope this study makes a significant contribution to the field and, in the end, saves lives.”

For more information on the study, contact research nurse practitioner Tammy Lo at 203-855-3551 or