Alcohol is carrying you towards cancer by damaging DNA

Faith Castro
January 5, 2018

Scientists have long hypothesized that acetaldehyde, created when our liver breaks down alcohol, is responsible for some of the carcinogenic risk factors of drinking.

In Wednesday's study, published in the journal Nature, Patel's team gave diluted alcohol to mice and then analyzed the effect on the animals' DNA. The researchers found that acetaldehyde snaps the DNA of stem cells, permanently altering the genetic code and triggering cancer.

But what they didn't understand until now, was that this is because drinking actually damages the DNA blueprint in your stem cells.

The latest work showed that acetaldehyde slices through DNA, causing permanent damage, if the effects of the toxin are not neutralised by two natural defence mechanisms. The mice in the study did not get cancer, but their stem cells stopped working to produce new blood cells.

Alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer: liver, breast, bowel, upper throat, mouth, oesophagal and larynx. So, when they drink, acetaldehyde builds up which causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to them feeling unwell.

In the study, when mice lacking a critical ALDH enzyme were given alcohol, their DNA suffered four times as damage compared with mice with a properly functioning version of the enzyme.

Alcohol consumptions lead to permanent genetic damage that can conclude to a situation of cancer.

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The study, conducted on genetically modified mice, adds to the growing evidence of a strong link between drinking and cancer.

Alongside new insights into the damage that ethanol causes to stem cells, the scientists uncovered new information about the protective mechanisms employed by our bodies in response to alcohol. When we genetically remove both protection mechanisms in mice, they become hugely prone to alcohol induced DNA damage.

Lead researcher Professor Ketan Patel, a scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said: "Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells". It is possible that the body's defence mechanisms against acetaldehyde are weaker in other tissues.

"It's important to remember that alcohol clearance and DNA fix systems are not flawless, and alcohol can still cause cancer in different ways - even in people whose defense mechanisms are intact", Patel said. A group of enzymes breaks down a unsafe chemical that the body produces when it breaks down alcohol.

Professor Linda Bauld, an expert on cancer prevention at Cancer Research UK, which partly funded the research, said: 'This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells, costing some people more than just a hangover.

Since alcohol contributes to an estimated 12,000 annual cancer cases in the country, they contend, the study is further proof that most should cut back on how much they indulge.

The study said that over 540 million people in Asia carry a mutation in the ALDH2 gene, which means they can't process acetaldehyde which causes the widely documented red flush reaction in Asians.

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