Alcohol long identified as cancer risk "It’s very important to have a model of how to prevent cancer," and this study provides that model, Gu said. "Epidemiologists have recognized alcohol as a risk factor for cancer for 100 years," but this study examines how that happens.
The mouse study builds on an earlier study with chicks that showed alcohol consumption increased the expression of a protein known as VEGF. VEGF fuels tumor growth by spurring the development of blood vessels in cancer cells that might otherwise die.
Normally, the immune system can kill off small tumors. However, when they grow large enough the body can no longer fight off the tumor cells. This is why angiogenesis is so important, Gu said.
VEGF, a protein that stimulates formation of blood vessels, helps organ tissues grow. Unfortunately, it also aids tumors grow by helping them develop a system of blood vessels. Without these blood vessels, cancer cells that form small tumors would quickly die.
The vast majority of tumors result from over expressed VEGF, Gu explained. "Every day, we produce a lot of cancer cells, but they don’t become bigger," he said. But if the cell establishes blood vessels, the tumor grows and strengthens, a process known as angiogenesis.
Cells dislike alcohol
When alcohol is consumed, it enters the cells, which attempt to eliminate it. Because it is difficult to break it down, the cells must increase metabolic activity to do that, Tan explained. But that requires oxygen, and the cells may deplete themselves of oxygen in an attempt to break down the alcohol.
This oxygen-depletion, known as hypoxia, indirectly induces production of VEGF. VEGF, in turn, stimulates the growth of new blood vessels to meet the increased oxygen demand. It is still too early to define safe levels of alcohol consumption in humans, Tan said, but she advises caution when drinking, particularly for individuals who drink every day.
"If you have risk for any kind of cancer, don’t drink at all," Gu advised. For those not at risk, the occasional social drink is fine, but "I don’t think 2-4 drinks per day is okay," Gu ventured. The public needs to know of these results as a tool of cancer prevention. Gu was once approached by a man on chemotherapy who asked him if it was okay to drink. The answer was a firm "no."
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