Drinking too much alcohol not only can put in danger your root canal in Tijuana Mexico but in can cause cancer in cell cultures. Now, a new study, funded in part by Cancer Research UK and published in the journal Nature, has used mice to show how exposure to alcohol leads to permanent genetic damage.
Researchers from the Molecular Biology Laboratory of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the United Kingdom gave dilute alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, to mice. They then used chromosomal analysis and DNA sequencing to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical that occurs when the body processes alcohol.
They discovered that acetaldehyde can break down and damage the DNA inside the blood stem cells, which causes the reorganization of the chromosomes and the permanent alteration of the DNA sequences within these cells.
It is important to understand how DNA design is damaged within stem cells because when healthy cells become defective, they can cause cancer, according to the study.
Therefore, these new findings help to understand how alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing seven types of cancer: breast, intestine, liver, mouth, throat, esophagus and larynx.
Ketan Patel, lead author of the study and MRC scientist, notes: “Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in the stem cells, which indicates that drinking alcohol can increase this risk.”
Enzymes defending against alcohol
The study also examined how the body tries to protect itself against injuries caused by alcohol. The first line of defense is a family of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH). These enzymes break down the harmful acetaldehyde into acetate, which our cells can use as an energy source.
Around the world, millions of people, particularly those in Southeast Asia, lack these enzymes or have defective versions of them. Therefore, when they drink, acetaldehyde accumulates, which causes a flushed complexion and also makes them feel bad.
In the investigation, when mice lacking the critical ALDH enzyme (ALDH2) were given alcohol, four times more DNA damage occurred in their cells compared to mice with the fully functional ALDH2 enzyme.
The second line of defense used by cells is a variety of DNA repair systems that, most of the time, allow them to repair and reverse different types of injuries. But they do not always work and some people carry mutations, which means that their cells can not carry out these repairs effectively.
Our study emphasizes that not processing alcohol effectively can lead to an increased risk of problems related to alcohol and, therefore, certain cancers. But it is important to remember that systems of alcohol elimination and DNA repair are not perfect and alcohol can cause cancer in different ways, even in people whose defense mechanisms are intact.
This research highlights the damage that alcohol can cause in our cells, some people find it harder than a simple hangover. We know that alcohol contributes to more than 12,000 cases of cancer in the UK each year, so it’s a good idea to think about reducing the amount you drink.