Increase in Genetic Risk of Breast Cancer Triggered by Alcohol Consumption

Researchers identified a cancer-causing gene triggered by alcohol use, providing a link between alcohol and breast cancer in cell-based research.1

"Alcohol consumption is prevalent among women in the [United States] and is a risk factor for breast cancer," said cancer biologist Chin-Yo Lin, PhD, of the University of Houston in Texas, and corresponding author of the study. "Our research shows alcohol enhances the actions of estrogen in driving the growth of breast cancer cells and diminishes the effects of the cancer drug tamoxifen on blocking estrogen by increasing the levels of a cancer-causing gene called BRAF."

Alcohol consumption is estimated to be responsible for tens of thousands of cases of breast cancer in the United States and Europe each year. Further, alcohol increases the risk of disease recurrence in women with early stage breast cancer.

This study sought to determine how alcohol can affect the actions of estrogen in breast cancer cells. The scientists found that alcohol increases estrogen-induced cell proliferation, and they directly linked alcohol, estrogen, and BRAF, a cancer-causing gene that promotes the growth of cancer cells.

Sustained expression of BRAF is promoted by alcohol, even when estrogen is absent. So, alcohol mimics or enhances the effects of estrogen to increase the risk of breast cancer.

The study also found that alcohol weakens the ability of tamoxifen to suppress the rapid growth of cancer cells. Alcohol exposure may affect a number of cancer-related pathways and mechanisms, based on these insights on the cross-talk between alcohol and cancer-related gene pathways and networks in breast cancer.

Preventing breast cancer is the ultimate goal of this work, though it also has implications for women undergoing hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms, as alcohol can affect the actions of the hormones they take to manage their symptoms. The research highlights potential long-term health effects for college-age women, as well, who might find themselves in situations where heavy or binge drinking is part of the social environment.

"We hope these and future findings will provide information and motivation to promote healthy behavioral choices, as well as potential targets for chemoprevention strategies to ultimately decrease breast cancer incidents and deaths within the next decade," Lin said. "We want to provide women in general with more information and insight to be better able to balance their consumption of alcoholic beverages with the potential health risks, including cancer patients who may want to take into consideration the potential detrimental effects alcohol consumption might have on treatments and modify their behavior and habits accordingly."


1. Candelaria NR, Weldon R, Muthusamy S, et al. Alcohol regulates genes that are associated with response to endocrine therapy and attenuates the actions of tamoxifen in breast cancer cells. PLoS One. 2015;10(12):e0145061. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145061.

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