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A recent study by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, and published in the journal Nature, has found that drinking alcohol raises the risk of cancer by damaging DNA. This is the first study that shows why alcohol consumption raises the risk of developing cancer.
In Britain, alcohol contributes to more than 12,000 cases of cancer each year, and is linked to seven types of cancer: liver, breast, bowel, upper throat, mouth, oesophageal and laryngeal cancer.
The researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology have discovered that when the body processes alcohol, it produces a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is harmful to DNA. The acetaldehyde damages the DNA in stem cells, particularly blood stem cells which go on to develop into red and white blood cells that carry oxygen through the body and help fight infections, respectively. However, most of our organs and tissues have stem cells, which are immortal cells that replenish old or damaged cells throughout our lives. The acetaldehyde snaps the DNA of stem cells, permanently altering the genetic code and triggering cancer.
Experts and charities described the findings as ‘very important’ and urge people to drink less. 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.”
The study also found that some people carry genetic mutations, which make them even more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. People of Chinese heritage are more likely to have the defects, which could explain the increased prevalence of oesophageal cancer in China. The authors 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.”