Researchers may have cracked one of the ways in which alcohol can cause cancer. It turns out that the hard stuff can cause irreversible damage to the DNA in some of our body’s stem cells, potentially providing a link between alcohol and deadly mutations.
Over the past few decades, there has been growing evidence that drinking booze can increase the likelihood of developing seven types of cancer, including larynx, breast, liver, and bowel. But how the consumption of alcohol then leads to the mutations that cause tumor development has long been a controversial subject.
A new study however, published this week in Nature, seems to have revealed at least one way in which this can occur. Researchers gave mice diluted alcohol, and then analyzed their chromosomes to see if they could spot any damage. They found that one of the substances produced as our bodies break down alcohol, known as acetaldehyde, physically breaks and damages the DNA held within blood stem cells.
They found that the chromosomes in the blood stem cells rearranged, and that the DNA sequence was permanently altered. This is of significance because when the genetic code of stem cells gets scrambled, the changes can lead to the cells mutating and causing cancer.
“Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells,” explained Professor Ketan Patel, who helped conduct this latest research. “While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage.”
Our bodies already have a line of defense against the potentially dangerous acetaldehyde in the form of a group of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH), which break it down as soon as it is formed. But some people lack these enzymes, particularly those from East Asia, causing what is known as Asian flush.
To mimic this, the researchers then created mice that lacked a key ALDH enzyme to see how the build-up of acetaldehyde affected the rodents. They found that these altered mice experienced four times as much DNA damage as those with the enzyme, hinting at the possibility that those who lack ALDH may be at a higher risk of cancer if they drink alcohol, and possibly explaining why people of Chinese heritage have an increased rate of oesophageal cancer.
Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, but not involved in the study, was impressed with the research. “This is beautiful work which puts our finger on the molecular basis for the link between alcohol and increased cancer risk and stem cells,” she commented. “Very important.”
Clearly, cutting down on alcohol can help reduce your risk of developing certain cancers, and scientists will now be able to explore further avenues.