Recent study published by Nature, “Alcohol and endogenous aldehydes damage chromosomes and mutate stem cells” lead by Professor Ketan J. Patel, identified that alcohol consumption produces harmful chemicals which leads to permanent genetic damage in the DNA of stem cells, increasing the risk of development of cancer.

“This damage results in DNA double-stranded breaks that, despite stimulating recombination repair, also cause chromosome rearrangements. “

In an attempt to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, the harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol, British scientists carried out an experiment using mice. Their findings proposed more details about how alcohol increases the risk of developing 7 types of cancer, including common forms such as breast and bowel cancer. It also demonstrated how the body seeks to defend against the damage alcohol can do.

Ketan Patel, a professor at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, who co-led the study, said “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 World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, citing “convincing evidence” it causes cancer in humans.

It was found by a study published in 2011 that alcohol is responsible for around 4% of all cancer in Britain – equating to around 12,800 cases a year.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature, Professor Patel’s team gave diluted alcohol to mice and then analyzed the effect on the animals’ DNA. It was discovered that acetaldehyde can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells, permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells. According to Professor Patel, when healthy stem cells become faulty, they can give rise to cancerous cells.

How the body tries to protect itself against damage caused by alcohol, is also a phase studied by the researchers. The first line of defense is the group of aldehyde dehydrogenases enzymes (ALDHs), Patel explained. These break down the acetaldehyde into acetate, which cells can then use as a source of energy.

In the study, compared with mice with a properly functioning version of the enzyme, DNA of mice lacking a critical ALDH enzyme was given alcohol suffered four times more.

Professor Patel added cells also have a second line of defense in the form of a range of DNA repair systems that mostly allow them to fix and reverse different types of DNA damage. However, there are instances when the repair systems fail to work, meaning their cells are unable to repair effectively in some people (South East Asia to be precise).

“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 defense mechanisms are intact,” Patel said.

The negative and damaging effect of alcohol on the stem cells is next to none. This research work is an eye opener which every alcohol consumers’ ought to see and know in order to know the side effects of alcohol on the stem cell DNA and how it increases chances of cancer, so as to draft out personal measures to either cut down or abstain from alcohol intake.

Journal Reference:

  1. Juan I. Garaycoechea, Gerry P. Crossan, Frédéric Langevin, Lee Mulderrig, Sandra Louzada, Fentang Yang, Guillaume Guilbaud, Naomi Park, Sophie Roerink, Serena Nik-Zainal, Michael R. Stratton, Ketan J. Patel. Alcohol and endogenous aldehydes damage chromosomes and mutate stem cellsNature, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/nature25154


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