Alcohol is poisonous to human beings, and the body needs to break this substance down as rapidly as possible in order to reduce any risks for serious harm. Unfortunately, some of the specialized proteins (called enzymes) that the body uses to break down alcohol can also cause significant damage. In a study published in late 2013 in the journal Breast Cancer Research, a team of British researchers looked at the potential for one particular alcohol-processing enzyme, called CYP2E1, to increase risks for the development and progression of breast cancer. Since CYP2E1 appears in higher amounts in people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol, heavy drinkers may have heightened chances of developing alcohol-related cases of this form of cancer.
Heavy drinking is an ongoing or sporadic pattern of alcohol intake known for its ability to seriously increase the chances that any given person will develop the symptoms of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism or alcohol abuse). According to public health guidelines issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other prominent organizations, men cross the boundary for heavy drinking when they consume 15 or more drinks in a week or five or more drinks in a 24-hour period. Women cross the boundary for heavy drinking when they consume eight or more drinks in a week or four or more drinks in a 24-hour period. Compared to an individual who never drinks heavily, an individual who drinks heavily once a month experiences a roughly 20 percent increase in his or her chances of developing alcohol use disorder. Odds for the onset of alcohol use disorder rise about 50 percent for an individual who drinks heavily at least twice a week.
Alcohol Processing and CYP2E1
Enzyme is the general term for a diverse family of proteins responsible for triggering the tens of thousands of chemical processes that keep the human body functioning. When you drink alcohol, three separate types of enzymes (including CYP2E1) become active inside the liver and starting breaking that alcohol down into a harmless substance. If you don’t drink very often and keep your daily and weekly totals for alcohol intake within moderate levels, your liver will typically do its job just fine. However, if you regularly drink large or excessive amounts of alcohol or even occasionally drink heavily, you can outstrip your liver’s short- or long-term capacity for alcohol processing and trigger the onset of alcohol-related damage in both your liver cells and cells located in other areas throughout the body. CYP2E1 only plays a primary role in alcohol processing in people who drink regularly and also drink enough to substantially elevate their blood alcohol levels.
Increased Breast Cancer Risks
In the study published in Breast Cancer Research, researchers from Great Britain’s University of Manchester and University of Salford explored the connection between alcohol consumption, CYP2E1 enzyme levels and the risks for developing breast cancer and/or experiencing a spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body. Specifically, they analyzed the potential of CYP2E1 to cause cell damage while breaking down alcohol, as well as the enzyme’s potential to support cancer-related changes in breast tissue cells. The researchers undertook this project, in part, because of prior efforts that revealed CYP2E1’s apparent involvement in promoting both the early stages of breast cancer and the progression of breast cancer to its deadlier later stages.
After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that high levels of CYP2E1 (such as those associated with chronic heavy alcohol consumption) can support the progression of breast cancer by allowing cancerous cells to survive in circumstances that might otherwise lead to their destruction and elimination. However, they also concluded that, in the latter stages of breast cancer, the presence of elevated levels of the enzyme can actually make it harder for cancer in breast tissue to migrate to other locations. This is critically important since, as a rule, the migration or metastasis of cancer dramatically increases the odds for fatal disease outcomes.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Breast Cancer Research believe that their work adds new understanding to the ways in which a person’s pattern of alcohol consumption can increase the risks for developing breast cancer or experiencing a worsening of an existing case of breast cancer. They also believe that awareness of CYP2E1’s role in limiting the spread of breast cancer could lead to the development of new targeted treatments that specifically reduce the risks for this spread in affected women.