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How Aldehydes, a common class of chemicals, causes cancer by breaking down DNA repair mechanisms

last modified Jun 29, 2017 11:15 AM

Aldehydes are a class of chemicals made in our own bodies in small quantities but increasingly found everywhere in our environment – from car exhausts, smoke, building materials and furniture to cosmetics and shampoos. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked with cancer, but the reasons for the link remain unclear.

New research led by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman at the MRC Cancer Unit shows that exposure to aldehydes could promote cancer by breaking down the defense mechanisms that prevent mutations in our genes.

Researchers from the Venkitaraman laboratory found that aldehyde exposure effects even normal healthy cells, but people who already inherit a faulty copy of the breast cancer gene BRCA2 are particularly sensitive.  Families who inherit faulty BRCA2 are at risk of developing breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancer: exposure to aldehydes could increase their chances of developing these cancers.

Our body converts the alcohol that we drink into aldehydes. Over 500 million people from countries like Japan, China and Korea inherit a faulty gene that makes aldehydes accumulate excessively in their bodies after alcohol consumption, and could be particularly sensitive to the cancer-causing effect.

“This study shows how chemicals to which we are increasingly exposed in our day-to-day lives may increase the risk of diseases like cancer,” says Professor Venkitaraman. “It also helps to explain why ‘the faults in our stars’ – namely the faulty genes we are born with – could make some people particularly sensitive to the cancer-causing effects of these chemicals.

“An important implication of this work is that it may be aldehyde exposure that triggers cancer susceptibility in people who inherit one faulty copy of the BRCA2 gene. This may help us in future to prevent or treat cancer in such people.”

The study, widely reported in several newspapers and online scientific portals, was published in the journal Cell.