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News / May 27, 2008

Mouth cancer risk related to speed that alcohol is broken down

by Guy Hiscott

Scientists have discovered a link between mouth cancer and the rate at which genes break down alcohol.

The genes that regulate how quickly people get drunk also influence their risks of developing cancer of the mouth, larynx or gullet, a new study has found.

Hundreds of patients with cancers of the mouth, larynx and oesophagus in Europe and Central and South America, together with patients free of the disease, were studied by researchers at Aberdeen University.

Two genes involved in metabolising alcohol – a substance already known to be a risk factor for oral cancer – were focused on.

People with a fast-acting variant of the gene for alcohol dehydrogenase – the enzyme that breaks down alcohol – were at much lower risk of these cancers, according to scientists collaborating in the international study.

Researchers found that the reason is these hyper-active enzymes break down alcohol – which is a toxin – more quickly.

This means that the mouth and throat are exposed to the damaging effects of alcohol for a shorter period, with a lower chance that cancer will be initiated.

One of the researchers, Dr Tatiana Macfarlane, said: ‘The study shows that your risk of getting oral cancers is linked to genetics as well as lifestyle.

‘In particular, the risk depends on how fast your body metabolises alcohol.

‘The results suggest that the faster you metabolise it, the lower your risk.

‘These results provide the strongest evidence yet that alcohol consumption is strongly linked to oral cancers.’

The research is published in the Nature Genetics journal.