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New research into the onset of diabetes which could go on to help in the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is being led by scientists at the University of Oxford.

Pancreatic Cancer Imagery

Currently, more than 50% of people with pancreatic cancer will die within three months of diagnosis. New Oxford research, funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK, aims to use computer modelling to predict which patients who have been newly diagnosed with diabetes are more likely to have or go on to develop the deadliest common cancer.

The charity has invested £99,940 in the year year-long project through the Pancreatic Cancer UK Research Innovation Fund (RIF). The purpose of the Fund is to support truly unique and innovative research into the causes, treatment and detection of pancreatic cancer.

In the early stages of pancreatic cancer, symptoms are often vague, making it an extremely challenging disease for doctors to detect and diagnose. Unfortunately, this means that nearly half of all people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in emergency, like a visit to A&E, when the cancer is more advanced, and life-saving treatment is often not possible.

Over 25% of patients who develop pancreatic cancer will also have had a diagnosis of diabetes years or months before a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. A new diagnosis of diabetes is therefore a potential indicator which researchers believe could help with early detection of pancreatic cancer.

It is therefore vital to develop an accurate prediction tool for GPs so they are able to identify patients with new onset diabetes who are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer and prioritise them for further tests. The impact is significant: one-year survival for pancreatic cancer patients diagnosed through a GP referral is three times higher, than those diagnosed in an emergency.

The team will use information from the QResearch database ( containing anonymised GP records of 35 million patients in England with data tracking back over 25 years. This will be linked to hospital records, cancer registry and death records to search for individual new-onset diabetes patient characteristics (e.g., age, gender, lifestyle) that are associated with a later diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

They will then compare the accuracy of risk prediction using computer algorithms and evaluate if a risk-based tool used in GP settings will be effective to detect pancreatic cancer at earlier stages among new-onset diabetes patients.

The research will be led by Dr Pui San Tan who is a data scientist at the University of Oxford. She will be supervised by Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, Professor in Clinical Epidemiology and General Practice and co-founder of the QResearch database.

Professor Hippisley-Cox has extensive experience in developing risk prediction tools for early diagnosis of cancer and other health conditions, which have been used in NHS settings. The research team also includes a pancreatic oncologist, immunology scientist, pharmacist, and epidemiologists/statisticians from the Universities of Oxford, Nottingham and University College London.


This exciting project has the potential to make a real difference in the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer which is crucial in the fight against the disease. The project aims to build and validate a risk prediction equation for pancreatic cancer in patients diagnosed with new onset diabetes. This will inform the development of a clinical decision tool for use by GPs to better assess pancreatic cancer risk for referrals and aid early detection of pancreatic cancer.
- Dr Pui San Tan

The research at the University of Oxford is one of eight promising new projects to receive a grant from Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Research Innovation Fund in 2021. Grants are intended to help combat the cycle of underfunding which has hampered desperately needed progress on diagnosis, treatment and survival for pancreatic cancer. By funding cutting-edge projects, Pancreatic Cancer UK helps researchers take their work to the next stage of development and closer to much-needed breakthroughs. Since its creation Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Research Innovation Fund has awarded more than £3 million to research projects, which have gone on to attract more than £22 million of additional funding.


Despite the fact that pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer research into the disease has been consistently underfunded for decades, meaning survival rates have barely improved at all in 50 years. To make ground-breaking discoveries in how to dramatically improve diagnosis and treatments, we need genuine innovation from the best and brightest minds in research.

Tragically, the majority of patients are currently diagnosed at an advanced stage, making innovative developments for earlier and faster diagnosis like this are absolutely critical. This research has the potential to help us diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier and give more people a chance of survival.

Our Research Innovation Fund supports pilot work that is high risk but high reward – and will put researchers in a better position to apply for larger grants to take their work to the next exciting stage.
- Dr Chris Macdonald, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK