Drinking Alcohol Causes Irreversible DNA Damage, Increases Cancer Risk

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A new study reveals that alcohol could potentially change our DNA permanently.

Alcohol can increase the risk of developing cancer by causing permanent genetic damage to stem cells in the body, new research has found. Now, using genetically engineered mice that lack key genes for aldehyde removal and DNA fix, Juan Garaycoechea from KJ's group, in collaboration with Mike Stratton's group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, has found that aldehydes damage DNA in the crucial stem cells that produce blood.

The team fed diluted ethanol to mice and then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to measure any damage caused by acetaldehyde, a chemical produced when alcohol is processed.

Patel: This work informs us of how alcohol causes damage to an important class of cells (stem cells) and how this could lead to cancer.

"Our work definitely shows that external factors, like drinking alcohol, can damage DNA in blood stem cells, meaning it could also damage DNA in other types of stem cells".

She said: 'This is handsome work which puts our finger on the molecular basis for the link between alcohol and increased cancer risk and stem cells'.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization body, has classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with tobacco, asbestos and formaldehyde. Just one pint of lager or a large glass of wine a day significantly increases the risk of mouth, throat, oesophageal, breast and bowel cancers. When they drink, the unsafe body-produced chemical called acetaldehyde builds up in their bodies.

Damage to the genome of stem cells may cause them to dysfunction.

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In the British scientists' study, when mice lacking the critical ALDH enzyme (ALDH2) were given alcohol, it resulted in four times as much DNA damage in their cells compared with mice with the fully-functioning enzyme.

When the body breaks down alcohol, it briefly converts it into a chemical called acetaldehyde For most people, acetaldehyde is only a temporary by-product of alcohol, before it is oxidized by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). Although we show that this damage is limited by a robust protection mechanism, inherited dysfunction of this mechanism is common in humans.

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.

Millions of people - many East Asians, for instance - have low levels of ALDH or faulty copies of the enzymes.

Prof Patel added: "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".

The researchers found that enzyme "defence systems" in mice helped to protect against alcohol damage - but if these systems were disabled, alcohol would destroy cells within 10 days. This means that toxic acetaldehyde builds up in the body.

Alcohol consumption causes around four percent of cancers in the United Kingdom, or around 12,800 cases each year.

As Prof. Linda Bauld, from Cancer Research U.K., says, "This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells, costing some people more than just a hangover".

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