Drinking, whether in moderation or in excessive quantity, is known to cause a range of negative health consequences and threat to a person’s life. While earlier studies establishing the link between alcohol exposure and genetic damage were done in cell cultures, a recent study published in the Journal Nature in January 2018 used mice to show how the exposure leads to permanent genetic damage. The study, funded by the Cancer Research UK, Wellcome and the Medical Research Council (MRC), provides evidence that alcohol produces harmful chemicals in the body that can cause permanent genetic damage in the DNA of stem cells, thereby, increasing the risk of cancer.
For their research, the scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, used DNA sequencing and chromosome analysis to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol. During the experiment, the team of researchers gave diluted alcohol (ethanol) to lab mice and then analyzed its effects on their DNA. The results showed that acetaldehyde can break and damage DNA within the blood stem cells, which eventually rearranges chromosomes.
According to Ketan Patel, study’s co-author and professor at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, once altered, faulty stem cells can give rise to cancerous cells. “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. 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.”
In addition to finding the damage caused by acetaldehyde, experts also looked at the line of defense the body offered to protect itself against the damage. In order to fight the damage caused by alcohol, a group of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases or ALDHs forms the first line of defense as they break down acetaldehyde into acetate used by body cells as a source of energy. The cells also have a second line of defense in the form of a range of DNA repair systems that allows the cells to fix and reverse different types of DNA damage most of the times. But in some people, particularly in people from South East Asia, the cells cannot carry out the repairs effectively. As a result, a drinking session brings about a flushed complexion and uneasiness among South Asians.
During the experiment, when alcohol was administered to mice that lacked the critical ALDH enzyme (ALDH2), their DNA suffered four times the damage as compared to mice having a properly functioning version of the enzyme. Even in people with good defense mechanisms, alcohol can cause cancer. According to professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cancer prevention, the study reflects on the fact that alcohol can do more severe damage than just a hangover.
Alcohol is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S. More Americans are drinking high amounts of alcohol, with a greater number constituting women and older adults. Excessive drinking causes seven types of cancer, including that of mouth, breast and bowel cancers. While not everyone who drinks will develop cancer, some cancers are found to be more common among those who drink. Though there is no proven way to completely prevent cancer, some of the precautions that one can take to lower alcohol-related risks include limiting the number of alcoholic beverages consumed, avoiding binge drinking and preventing a cocktail of alcohol and tobacco products or drugs, among others.
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