If we think of life from a puritanical point of view alcohol is regarded as a vice. From that particular point of view, this happens to be a widely-accepted fact. Even, if we think from a general point of view alcohol is something that is best avoided and especially so in excessive quantities. It is estimated that every year in the United States of America (USA) almost 88,000 people lose their lives because of too much alcohol intake.
If you looked at the impact that alcohol had on you through the lens of biology you would find a much darker picture as such.
In fact, terrifying would be the right word to use over here. Recently, researchers working at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge have discovered that alcohol is capable of doing damage to the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in our stem cells. Worse still, this damage is permanent. This also means that you are at greater risk of developing cancer. As far as the hard drinkers of the world are concerned it causes more than just a bad hangover.
The researchers are of the opinion that there is some controversy regarding the way alcohol causes said damage. Professor Ketan Patel, who is the lead researcher for the paper in which this finding has been published, has however said that the paper does provide very strong evidence that alcohol metabolite is capable of causing damage to DNA and this includes the stem cells that help form the tissues.
The study can be regarded as a development of an earlier work that had precisely pointed out acetaldehyde, which is basically a product derived from alcohol. This is basically a poisonous element that is capable of damaging the DNA present in our cells.
There was a problem with the earlier studies though – they depended on really high amounts of acetaldehyde and also employed cells within a dish. As such the effects of this element within the human body were not monitored.
The new study shows that acetaldehyde cuts through DNA. It depicts the exact way that this happens. It is through this slicing action that acetaldehyde causes everlasting damage to our DNA. Normally, the effects of this poison are supposed to be countered by a couple of natural defense mechanisms. The first line of defense is supposed to remove the acetaldehyde and the second line is supposed to correct the damage done to the DNA.
For the purpose of this study, the researchers looked at mice that had been bred sans FANCD2 or ALDH2. As part of their experiments they tested to see what happened to blood stem cells, also referred to as hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) when the mice were exposed to alcohol. It was discovered that alcohol led to high-level damage to DNA cells, whereby HSCs were unable to come up with new blood cells. The experiments were however not conducted in such a way so as to see if the mice developed cancer or not.
The researchers, however, did point out that the damage absolutely destroyed the stem cells to such an extent that they were even unable to perform their basic function – of creating fresh blood cells in the body. As the researchers have explained, there is always a possibility that this could lead to more mutations in the body. Patel has acknowledged that their tests did not deal with the possibility of the mice contracting cancer. However, he has also pointed out that the previous tests have shown that such damage can always add significantly to the risk of cancer in a person.
These findings have been received rather warmly by the scholarly circle. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who happens to be a Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at Cambridge, has described the findings to be beautiful. She states that this study points out the molecular-level connection between greater risk of cancer and consumption of alcohol. In short, it has been termed to be a rather important study. The findings have also been corroborated by the likes of Professor Malcolm Alison, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at the Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, and Susannah Brown, Senior Science Programme Manager (Research Evidence) of the World Cancer Research Fund.