As a clinical researcher who spends most of his time at his oncology practice, Dr. Richard Frank has few conversations more agonizing than those with his pancreatic cancer patients.

They ask how long they have. Frank tells them there’s no reason to despair, because remarkable things happen when people have hope.

But the numbers are against them. The typical prognosis for late-stage pancreatic cancer is six to 12 months, although some patients live two to three years. One person in 10 might survive for five years.

The patient invariably asks whether the cancer could have been caught sooner.

While the answer for many other types of cancer is increasingly ‘Yes,’ the answer for pancreatic cancer continues to be ‘No.’

The difficulty of detecting the disease early is one reason it kills 43,000 Americans each year — more than breast cancer.

“I am a medical oncologist, and I watch people with pancreatic cancer generally die,” says Frank, the director of clinical cancer research for the Western Connecticut Health Network that operates the hospitals in Danbury, Norwalk and New Milford. “It’s unacceptable, right?”

Frank’s frustration that medical science has not developed a way to screen for pancreatic cancer is behind an ambitious $2.7 million clinical trial he launched earlier this month to develop an early detection test that can save lives.

The three-year trial, which seeks to enroll 800 people, will study the relationship between pancreatic cancer and a far more prevalent disease of the pancreas — diabetes.

“Fifty percent of individuals who get pancreatic cancer develop diabetes in the two to three years before they are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” Frank said during an interview last week at the Western Connecticut Health Network’s Biomedical Research Institute in Danbury. “The cancer is doing something in the pancreas to cause the diabetes.”

Frank believes that a specific kind of diabetes known as Type 2 is a symptom of pancreatic cancer.

To test his hypothesis, he needs many hundreds of blood samples and MRIs from patients with Type 2 diabetes or with a family history of pancreatic cancer.

In the end, Frank hopes to come up with a blood test much like the PSA test for prostate cancer, which kills 26,700 men annually in America.

The stakes for Frank’s trial are high: Pancreatic cancer is on track to become the second-leading cause of cancer death, after lung cancer, by 2020.

Although the trial has launched with 30 participants, its success depends on Frank’s ability to enroll hundreds more over the next year. Success will also depend on his ability to win grants and contributions from philanthropists.

A website with details on participating in the trial can be found at