Damage to stem-cell DNA may explain link between alcohol and cancer

Drinking alcohol has been found to damage DNA causing an increased risk of breast cancer

Alcohol consumption can "considerably" increase the risk of cancer by permanently damaging DNA, scientists have discovered for the first time.

When mice deprived of ALDH enzymes were administered alcohol in the study, the researchers identified four times the DNA damage in cells compared to the fully-functioning mice. They found that a breakdown product of alcohol, called acetaldehyde, acts a toxin and can damage the DNA in blood stem cells.

To find out how it damages the body, scientists gave diluted alcohol to mice then sequenced their DNA and analysed their chromosomes.

"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. The mice in the study did not get cancer, but their stem cells stopped working to produce new blood cells.

"How exactly alcohol causes damage to us is controversial", study coauthor Ketan Patel of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology tells The Guardian. This discovery potentially explains how alcohol increases the risk of developing several types of cancers.

It has always been known that a build up of carcinogenic acetaldehyde - a chemical produced when the body processes alcohol - is the principal cause of seven types of cancer, especially breast cancer in women as well as bowel and mouth cancer.

So, when they drink alcohol, the acetaldehyde builds up in their bodies, which then causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to the drinker feeling unwell. The scientists examine the genetic damage caused by this harmful chemical.

Mice without either the ADLH2 enzyme to process acetaldehyde, or the FANCD2 protein to fix the damage, stopped producing new blood cells after being exposed to alcohol, because their damaged HSCs no longer worked. It also showed how the body seeks to defend against the damage alcohol can do.

It has been estimated almost 6% of all cancer deaths worldwide could be attributed to alcohol
It has been estimated almost 6% of all cancer deaths worldwide could be attributed to alcohol

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.

Many studies in the past have tried to look at the precise mechanism by which this happens, however, those studies were done on cell cultures.

Warning others about the dangers of downing drinks has no effect on the likelihood they will do it, the research adds.

Our body needs to break down acetaldehyde into simpler chain compounds to prevent its build-up.

Professor Linda Bauld of the organisation said: "This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells - costing some people more than just a hangover".

Millions of people worldwide, particularly those from South East Asia, either lack all of these enzymes, or carry faulty versions of them.

With alcohol consumption causing contributing to an over 12,000 cancer cases annually in the United Kingdom alone, scientists warn it's high time people started thinking about cutting down on what and how much they drink.

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