New research has found that alcohol damages DNA in stem cells, which explains why drinking increases your risk of cancer…

Scientists gave diluted alcohol to mice. They then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to examine the damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol.

They found that it can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells.

This helps us understand how drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer.

“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,” says Professor Ketan Patel, lead author of the study.

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Related: Study: The relationship between sugar and cancer

How the body tries to protect itself from alcohol

The study also examined how the body tries to protect itself against damage caused by alcohol.

Not being able to process alcohol effectively can lead to an even higher risk of alcohol-related DNA damage and therefore certain cancers

1. The first line of defence

A family of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH) break down harmful acetaldehyde into acetate, which our cells can use as a source of energy.

The reason for a flushed complexion

Millions of people, particularly those from Southeast Asia, either lack these enzymes or carry faulty versions of them. So, when they drink, acetaldehyde builds up which causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to them feeling unwell.

In the 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 to mice with the fully functioning ALDH2 enzyme.

2. The second line of defence

This includes a variety of DNA repair systems which, most of the time, allow them to fix and reverse different types of DNA damage. But they don’t always work and some people carry mutations which mean their cells aren’t able to carry out these repairs effectively.

More than a hangover

“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,” explains Professor Patel, “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.”

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cancer prevention, says, “This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells, costing some people more than just a hangover.

“We know that alcohol contributes to over 12 000 cancer cases in the UK each year, so it’s a good idea to think about cutting down on the amount you drink.”

Source: Cancer Research UK via

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