A new study has for the first time discovered that drinking alcohol can raise the risk of cancer by permanently damaging stem cell DNA, leading health experts to call for people to cut down on their consumption.
The study, which was published on January 3, in the journal Nature, took a precise look at how exposure to alcohol, and the compounds that result when the body breaks down alcohol, cause damage to chromosomes in blood stem cells.
These stem cells are crucial for replenishing cells lost throughout the life span, but once they are damaged, they can spread the damage further. (Stem cells can divide and replenish cells for long periods of time.)
The study, which was carried out by the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, has found that when the body processes alcohol it produces a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is harmful to DNA.
The researchers found that alcohol severely damages the DNA of stem cells in the blood and can subsequently lead to the formation of tumours.
The damage happens in blood stem cells, which create the red and white blood cells that carry oxygen through the body and help fight infections.
The study’s authors conducted their research on a group of mice, who were given ethanol and were subsequently examined to see what effect the acetaldehyde had on their cellular structures.
By conducting chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing, they were able to uncover the level of genetic damage that had been caused as a result of the ethanol.
They found that the chemical gave rise to permanent mutations in the mice’s DNA sequences which could lead to various forms of cancers.
Experts and charities described the findings, reported in ‘Nature’, as “very important” and urged people to drink less.
Speaking on the research, Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cancer prevention, said:
“This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells, costing some people more than just a hangover. “It’s a good idea to think about cutting down on the amount you drink.”
Alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer: liver, breast, bowel, upper throat, mouth, oesophagal and larynx.
Also, Professor Ketan Patel, lead author of 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 study also found some people carry genetic mutations in two genes – aldh2 and Fancd2 – which make drinking far more dangerous.
People of Chinese heritage are more likely to have the defects, which could explain the increased prevalence of oesophageal cancer in China, the authors said.
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.”