"White Russian" Roulette: Drinking & Breast Cancer

Breast cancer risks from drinking linked to CYP2E1 levels

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) One day you hear red wine is good for you. The next day you read that any alcohol is bad for you. To add fuel to the flame of confusion, new research shows a possible link between alcohol and increased breast cancer - but this may or may not be so for you.

If you have a high level of a certain protein called CYP2E1, drinking alcohol could increase your risks of developing breast cancer.

Now if you don't have an abundance of this molecule, then you don't have to worry so much - at least according to laboratory research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

"If you choose to drink alcohol, please do so in moderation."

Drinking alcohol is an established risk factor for breast cancer, but the biological link has never been clearly understood. 

María de Lourdes Rodríguez-Fragoso, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos in Mexico, explains that the body has a way of disposing of toxic chemicals including ethanol - or alcohol.

Problem is this process can produce other toxic substances that in turn can promote cancer development.

Scientists have known that the protein CYP2E1 - which is found in breast cells - breaks down ethanol and leaves behind free radicals, which are known to play a role in tumor growth. 

Rodríguez-Fragoso and her collaborators asked, "...does having more CYP2E1 make you more susceptible to ethanol-induced toxicity, thereby increasing your risk of developing cancer?"

To answer the question, investigators applied ethanol to breast cell cultures that had various levels of CYP2E1. The cells with lower levels of the protein did not produce as many free radicals as those with higher levels of CYP2E1.

Rodríguez-Fragoso notes, "our results showed that ethanol-treated human mammary cells had an increase in free radical production, oxidative stress and the activation of cellular mechanisms that cause cells to increase their proliferation rate," all hallmarks of cancer.

"So if you are a woman who naturally expresses higher levels of CYP2E1 and you consume alcohol, you would be at a greater risk for developing breast cancer than a woman who expresses lower amounts of CYP2E1," she explains.

Levels of this protein vary among women, according to other research conducted by this group. Rodriguez-Fragoso is looking to develop a test that would identify CYP2E1 levels. 

"If you know the risk probability of certain behaviors on your likelihood of developing cancer, then you can better understand what preventative measures you should be taking," she said.

It should be noted that research is considered preliminary before it's published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 24, 2012
Last Updated:
April 24, 2012