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Alcohol Can Damage DNA, Leading to Cancer, Study Finds

Scientists have been aware for quite some time that alcohol consumption could lead to cancer. But recent research shows the impact alcohol has on stem cells, and the processes that occur that result in permanent genetic damage.

In a study involving mice and diluted alcohol at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, scientists used chromosome analysis to better understand the genetic damage that is caused by acetaldehyde, a compound that is created when the body processes alcohol. What they found is that it "can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells," according to Science Daily. If a stem cell is faulty, it can produce cancerous cells as a result.

The research also looked at how the body attempts to protect itself when alcohol is consumed. Enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH) are used to break down the harmful effects of alcohol. There are, however, millions of people worldwide who lack these enzymes (particularly people from Southeast Asia). When someone doesn't have ALDH, they appear flushed after drinking and can feel ill. The scientists found that in mice that lacked ALDH, they found "four times as much DNA damage in their cells compared to mice with the fully functioning ALDH2 enzyme."

The body also has "repair systems" in place to fix and reverse the effects of damaged DNA. But "they don't always work and some people carry mutations which mean their cells aren't able to carry out these repairs effectively."

The researchers highlighted the fact that alcohol can cause cancer (over 12,000 annual cases in the UK alone) and that a body lacking defenses is lacking is more likely to develop the disease, anyone can suffer from the damaging effects of the substance.