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Alcohol ‘directly causes several types of cancer,’ warn doctors

OXFORD, UK ( - If you enjoy a nightly glass of wine or beer, a study may make you think twice the next time you need to take the edge off. New research warns that alcohol consumption may be to blame for the development of several types of cancer.

In addition, research from Oxford University suggests that people who never drink, or just have an occasional sip, are 31 percent less likely to develop certain types of the disease.

Alcohol has been linked to a number of tumors, including tumors of the breast, intestine, mouth, pharynx and liver. Now, researchers have shown that it is a deadly trigger, especially for those with specific gene mutations.

"These results indicate that alcohol directly causes several types of cancer," says lead researcher Dr. Becky Im, of Oxford Population Health, in a statement. "These risks may be further increased in people with hereditary low alcohol tolerance who cannot metabolize alcohol properly."

Authors say the risk was greatest in participants who drank regularly despite being more prone to the effects.

Genes mean something

The British team tracked more than 150,000 men and women in China for an average of eleven years. Alcohol requires about 3 million lives a year across the globe - over 400,000 from cancer. Consumption is rising, especially in fast-developing countries.

However, it has been difficult to rule out confusing factors, such as smoking and diet, that could generate skewed results. It was also unclear whether alcohol causes other forms such as lung and stomach cancer.

In collaboration with experts in China, Dr. Im and colleagues a new approach by examining two variants associated with low alcohol intake. The genes, known as ALDH2 and ADH1B, are common in Chinese and East Asian populations, but rare in Europeans. They nourish a carcinogen called acetaldehyde in the blood, leading to an unpleasant "flushing" feeling. The mutations were used as a proxy for alcohol intake. They are inherited at birth independently of other lifestyle factors.

Men with one or two copies of ADH1B were 13 to 25 percent less likely to get cancer. The phenomenon particularly affected alcohol-related tumors, specifically those in the head, neck and esophagus.

Men carrying two copies of ALDH2 drank very little. They had a 31 percent lower risk of cancer of the esophagus, colon, rectum and liver. They also had a 14 percent lower risk of developing cancer.

Since women rarely drink alcohol in China, the main analysis focused on men, a third of whom pampered most weeks. Those who drank regularly despite having a copy with them had a significantly higher risk of head and neck cancer and esophageal cancer.

Lowering alcohol consumption is an easy way to reduce the risk of cancer

For those who completely refrain from drinking or occasionally drink, there was no overall association between carrying one copy of ALDH2 and increased cancer risk. The results remained the same when smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass and family history of cancer were taken into account.

In the women, of whom only 2 percent drank regularly, the mutations were not associated with any increased risk of cancer. This indicated that the reduced risks for male carriers were due to their lower alcohol consumption.

The results, published in International Journal of Cancer, Adding evidence to abstain from alcohol is the healthiest option.

"Our study reinforces the need to lower the population's alcohol consumption for cancer prevention," says senior researcher Dr. Iona Millwood, also of Oxford.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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