Jan. 20, 1999 New evidence suggests that the chemical which prompts a hangover after a night of heavy drinking may also cause cancer, according to an international team of scientists. Acetaldehyde is produced by the human body as it processes the ethanol in alcoholic beverages and, in addition to the "morning after" effects, has been shown to damage certain genetic building blocks. Now scientists have shown that those damaged parts are efficiently inserted into DNA.
The findings appear in the Jan. 19 print edition of the journal Biochemistry, published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. The paper first appeared in the journal's web edition on Dec. 29.
Small amounts of acetaldehyde are rendered harmless in most people by an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2. A large percentage of Asians, however, lack the gene responsible for making the enzyme and are known to be particularly prone to esophageal and liver cancers. The new research suggests that "prolonged alcohol intake beyond the capacity of detoxification of acetaldehyde in the body may increase cancer risk," says Shinya Shibutani, Ph.D., one of the paper's authors and a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
DNA is made up of chemicals called nucleotides which, when altered, can cause mutations that lead to cancer. The current study shows that an acetaldehyde-damaged nucleotide, called N2-ethyl-2 -deoxyguanosine (N2-ethyl-dG), is readily incorporated into DNA within mammalian cells. The work seems to support previous studies linking alcohol consumption to cancers of the esophagus, larynx, and liver.
In addition to alcohol metabolism, acetaldehyde is produced during normal digestion and is found in many foods, automotive exhaust, and cigarette smoke. It also is commonly produced during industrial processes to make dyes, plastics, and synthetic rubbers. Scientists even found N2-ethyl-dG in urine from healthy volunteers who had abstained from alcohol consumption.
"This indicates the cellular nucleotide pool and DNA are exposed constantly to acetaldehyde even without drinking alcoholic beverages," says Shibutani.
Scientists at Kyoto University in Japan and at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia also contributed to the Biochemistry paper.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of more than 155,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
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