Study to Explore Link Between Diabetes, Pancreatic Cancer

Mary Caffrey

A 3-year study will investigate the link between new-onset diabetes and pancreatic cancer, with the hope of finding ways to detect pancreatic cancer early when it is at a curable stage.

Richard Frank, MD, director of clinical cancer research for the Western Connecticut Health Network (WCHN), will lead the $2.7 million study, which will ask participants to undergo annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the pancreas for 3 years under a protocol developed by network radiologists Ronald Lee, MD, and James Bauman, MD. A gastroenterologist will examine suspicious lesions using endoscopic ultrasound to determine if cancer is present.

Study participants will also give a blood sample every 6 months to create a serum blood bank, which may later allow researchers to find a biomarker for pancreatic cancer since none currently exists.

Pancreatic cancer is overtaking other forms of the disease in overall death rates, and is projected to be the second-leading cause of cancer death by 2020. A challenge of pancreatic cancer is that it is hard to detect until later stages when it is difficult to treat.

Rising rates of diabetes and obesity have been linked to increases in pancreatic cancer. Type 2 diabetes is associated with a 1.5- to 2.0-fold increase in pancreatic cancer risk. Although the connection is not fully understood, insulin resistance, inflammation, and resulting hyperglycemia, have been implicated in the mechanisms that cause the cell proliferation in diabetic-related pancreatic cancer.

In 2012, Donghui Li, PhD, reported in Molecular Carcinogenesis that animal studies suggest islet cell turnover, associated with insulin resistance, trigger the initial growth of pancreatic cancer cells. Since the failure of islet beta cells is the hallmark of the onset of obesity-associated type 2 diabetes, it would make sense to follow patients with new onset diabetes closely for early signs of pancreatic cancer.

Patients in the trial will not have to pay for any tests, as all have been covered by private donations, according to a statement from WCHN. The actor James Naughton and his family raised more than $1 million for pancreatic cancer research in honor of his late wife, Pamela, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.

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