alcohol cancer

Aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH) are a group of enzymes which break down acetaldehyde into benign acetate, which can actually be used as a source of energy for cells and hence is a large part of the unfortunate calorie-burden of alcohol.

A study published in Nature has provided compelling evidence that acetaldehyde; a breakdown product of ethanol could cause dramatic damage to DNA and an increased risk of cancer.

Researchers at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology focused on stem cells in the blood of genetically modified mice. Investigating how the body breaks down alcohol by “knocking out” two natural defence mechanisms that clear away acetaldehyde and repair DNA damage.  They were able to show DNA damage accumulating until in some cases, cells stopped functioning entirely.

The Daily Bundle

“How exactly alcohol causes damage to us is controversial,” said lead author Prof Ketan Patel. “This paper provides very strong evidence that an alcohol metabolite causes DNA damage [including] to the all-important stem cells that go on to make tissues.”

“Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage.”

The study determined that DNA damage was enhanced when mice lacked ALDH2, part of a group of enzymes responsible for breaking acetaldehyde into benign acetate so it can then be used as a source of energy for cells. Mice lacking ALDH2 showed 4 times as much DNA damage in their cells when compared to mice with a fully-functioning ALDH2 enzyme.

Worldwide, 8% of the human population have inherited deficiencies in ALDH2 which has previously been linked to a greater risk of developing oesophageal cancer after drinking.

What Will 2018 Bring for Drug Development?

 “Our study highlights that not being able to process alcohol effectively can lead to an even higher risk of alcohol-related DNA damage and therefore certain cancers,” said Patel. “But it’s important to remember that alcohol clearance and DNA repair systems are not perfect and alcohol can still cause cancer in different ways, even in people whose defence mechanisms are intact.”

Prof Linda Bauld, 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.

We know that alcohol contributes to over 12,000 cancer cases in the UK each year, so it’s a good idea to think about cutting down on the amount you drink.”

This study adds merit to a wave of recent reports that suggest there is no safe limit for alcohol consumption, with even low levels of drinking causing some damage at the DNA level.