Drinking too Much Alcohol Can Seriously Damage Your DNA

Man holding mini liquor bottle in one of his jeans pockets

A recent study has revealed that alcoholism damages DNA, which can increases the individual's likelihood of cancer.

Health watchdogs have long warned that alcohol consumption contributes to seven types of cancer - of the mouth, throat, larynx or voice box, oesophagus or food pipe, breast, liver and bowel.

"While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage", said lead author Ketan Patel of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

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 team also examined how the body fights against alcohol damage using a family of enzymes called ALDH, which turn acetaldehyde into acetate, which cells can use as energy. But in this study, researchers used mice to demonstrate that prolonged exposure to alcohol leads to permanent DNA destruction.

Scientists think they know how alcohol damages DNA and increases the risk of cancer. As a result, there is more pressure on FANCD2, and may lead to more missed DNA damage.

They discovered that drinking causes genetic breaks which rearrange chromosomes, and alter the DNA blueprint which keeps the body healthy.

The link between alcohol and certain types of cancer has been known for some time, but exactly how drinking can raise cancer risk has been less clear. Previous research has shown that alcohol affects blood cells, as many people with alcoholism become anemic, meaning they have too few red blood cells, Patel said. When they drink, the unsafe body-produced chemical called acetaldehyde builds up in their bodies.

The researchers found that alcohol severely damages the DNA of stem cells in the blood and can subsequently lead to the formation of tumours. 'This paper provides very strong evidence that an alcohol metabolite causes DNA damage [including] to the all-important stem cells that go on to make tissues'. However, even people with intact defense mechanisms can get cancer since DNA fix mechanisms are not ideal.

"If we remove just the first level of protection, which is just the enzyme that detoxifies [the acetaldehyde], just giving [the mice] one big dose of alcohol is enough to initiate four times more DNA damage than in normal mice", Patel said. But these mechanisms do not always work; some people have mutations that render them ineffective.

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