While the alcohol contained in red wine constitutes a risk factor for head and neck cancer, a chemical found in grape skins (and, in red wine) called resveratrol has been found to provide protection against cancer, according to the results of a recent study.
Alcohol and cancer
On studying a disease called Fanconi anaemia, scientists have stumbled across the link between alcohol and cancer.
Fanconi anaemia is a rare disease, characterised by the accumulation of damaged DNA as a result of DNA tangles called cross links remaining unrepaired. As the pieces of DNA are not restored from their broken state, they come together, exposing the patient to the risks of developing leukemia as well as head and neck cancers.
Researchers have discovered that the genetic accelerator of cancer in patients suffering from Fanconi anaemia follows the same mechanism as alcohol-caused cancer. The pathway that leads to cancer is characterised by incomplete metabolism of alcohol.
The metabolism of alcohol starts off with the body converting the alcohol into acetyl aldehyde, and then into acetic acid in the presence of aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Also, the absence of ALDH increases the cancer risk further.
This set of reactions are detrimental to the body because acetyl aldehyde happens to be a carcinogen. It produces DNA cross links thereby raising the risk of cancer for patients of Fanconi anaemia since they are unable to repair the damaged DNA.
The author Robert Sclafani summarised the above in the following words:
“With enough alcohol, the body can get behind and end up with a backlog of acetyl aldehyde. Increased exposure to alcohol, loss of the ALDH gene that helps the body process alcohol, and loss of the ability to repair DNA cross links all result in increased cancer risk.But when you look at epidemiological studies of head and neck cancer, alcohol is a factor, but by alcohol source, the lowest cancer incidence is in people who drank red wine. In red wine, there’s something that’s blocking the cancer-causing effect of alcohol.”
As consumption of alcohol increases, damaged DNA accumulates, and simultaneously, the cancer risk goes up.
Resveratrol: Taking care of damaged cells by killing them
Now, this is where resveratrol plays a role. Found in grape skins in red wine, the chemical deleted the cells that have undergone the most DNA damage. The human body has been gifted with astounding ways of protecting itself. So, the damage being done at the cellular level is eventually dealt with by the body’s system. However, this should not be taken for granted. At some point, the damage done by the alcohol goes beyond repair. Hence, much alcohol consumption confers on one a high risk of head and neck cancer.
In a nutshell, the relationship between alcohol and resveratrol is that the former damages cells which are then eliminated by the latter.
Could resveratrol be the panacea for tumours? Ah, this would be too good to be true. According to the researchers, the delivery of the compound to the tumours would be challenging, and hence, this might not be the ideal treatment for advanced stages of the disease.