From Cocktails to Cancer and Back

Head and neck cancer risks can be affected by alcohol consumption

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) The human body is a wonderland of complex chemical reactions that both cause and ward off disease. Alcohol can throw the body out of sorts if the system doesn’t work just right.

Researchers have found that the body’s response to alcohol can produce genetic changes, which can lead to cancer.

The good news is the body can reverse this process, though.

"Be honest with your doctor."

Silvia Balbo, PhD, research associate and Stephen Hecht, PhD, from the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota, led an investigation into how alcohol may lead to head and neck cancers.

Dr. Balbo said, “We now have the first evidence from living human volunteers that acetaldehyde [a chemical] formed after alcohol consumption damages DNA dramatically.”

“Acetaldehyde attaches to DNA in humans—to the genetic material that makes up genes—in a way that results in the formation of a ‘DNA adduct,” Dr. Balbo explained.

“It’s acetaldehyde that latches onto DNA and interferes with DNA activity in a way linked to an increased risk of cancer.”

When a person drinks alcohol, the body produces acetaldehyde—a substance that’s very close to the toxic chemical formaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde can react with a person’s DNA, and change it. When that happens it’s called a DNA adduct. Very early development of cancerous cells can begin with a DNA adduct.

A molecule known as, N2-ethylidene-dGuo (N2), is the DNA adduct that results when acetaldehyde reacts with a person’s DNA.

For the small study, researchers gave 10 healthy, non-smokers vodka once a week for three weeks. Saliva samples were tested for changes in biomarkers that indicate disease, enzymes and DNA.

The participants were given one drink of vodka the first week, two drinks the second week and three drinks the third.

Saliva samples were taken before they drank and several times after drinking the alcohol.

Researchers found 100 times more of the DNA adduct, N2, in all of the saliva samples four hours after drinking alcohol than was seen in the pre-drinking samples.

N2 can lead to head and neck cancer unless converted into something harmless.

The body naturally produces an enzyme that can prevent DNA adducts from forming cancer-causing cells.

That enzyme is called alcohol dehydrogenase and it can lower the risk of developing head and neck cancers, according to the study.

People of Asian, Native American and native Alaskan decent have less of this enzyme. This puts them at additional risk for head and neck cancers associated with alcohol consumption.

This study was presented at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, held in late August in Philadelphia. The study was published earlier in the year in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

No funding information was given and no conflicts of interest were reported.

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Review Date: 
August 28, 2012
Last Updated:
September 2, 2012