Alcoholic beverages are causally related to cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and esophagus. Ethanol is oxidized to acetaldehyde and then to acetate by alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), both of which have genetic polymorphisms. A review of case-control studies of the effects of ALDH2, ADH2 and ADH3 genotypes shows consistently positive associations between inactive heterozygous ALDH2 and the less-active ADH2 genotypes and the risk for esophageal cancer in East Asian heavy drinkers and this enzyme-related vulnerability may extend to light-to-moderate drinkers. Some studies suggest similar associations with the risk for head and neck cancer in moderate-to-heavy-drinking Japanese. An established carcinogen in experimental animals, acetaldehyde can interact with human DNA. ALDH2-associated cancer susceptibility fits into a scenario in which acetaldehyde plays a critical role in the development of human cancer. Alcohol flushing and drinking behavior may partly explain this carcinogenic effect in carriers of less-active ADH2 genotypes. Whether the ADH3 genotype influences head and neck cancer risk in Western nations is controversial. Professional and public education about risky conditions connected to the ALDH2 and ADH2 genotypes and environmental factors is important in a new strategic approach to the prevention of alcohol-related cancers in East Asians. The use of simple tests to identify inactive ALDH2 on the basis of alcohol flushing responses could benefit many people, by helping them to identify their own cancer risks. Such testing could also help clinicians diagnose esophageal cancer earlier, through the use of endoscopic screening in the high-risk population.
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