Scientists have identified what they say may explain the well-established link between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer in some women.
Health experts at the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos in Mexico said they have identified a protein that breaks down alcohol in the body and, in the process, creates dangerous free radicals that can increase the odds of cancer development in cells.
Researchers said the finding, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in San Diego this week, paves the way for possible new ways to identify women who may be at greater risk of breast cancer.
"Cells have different mechanisms to remove toxic substances, such as ethanol, the chemical name for alcohol, that represent a potential risk to them," said lead researcher María de Lourdes Rodríguez-Fragoso. "Unfortunately, sometimes these mechanisms produce other toxic substances, including some that are associated with the development of different types of cancer."
Rodríguez-Fragoso and her colleagues said the protein in question -- called CYP2E1 – breaks down alcohol and creates “unstable, highly reactive chemicals known as free radicals" linked to a number of diseases, including cancer and tumor development.
CYP2E1 is found in a particular kind of breast cells where most breast cancers originate. To determine if CYP2E1 is involved in breast cancer development, researchers administered ethanol to cultures of the cells that had varying levels of the protein. Those with the highest amounts of CYP2E1 protein were more greatly affected, suggesting women with higher levels of the protein who drink alcohol are most in at risk.
"The question then was, does having more CYP2E1 make you more susceptible to ethanol-induced toxicity, thereby increasing your risk of developing cancer?" she said. The answer, she said: “If you are a woman who naturally expresses higher levels of CYP2E1 and you consume alcohol, you would be at a greater risk for developing breast cancer than a woman who expresses lower amounts of CYP2E1."
Rodríguez-Fragoso said her group should be able to develop a method of diagnosis that would focus on levels of CYP2E1 in breast tissue. "If you know the risk probability of certain behaviors on your likelihood of developing cancer, then you can better understand what preventative measures you should be taking," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates breast cancer causes nearly 40,000 deaths a year alone, with an additional 220,000 diagnoses.