Rush University Medical Center scientists have identified a cellular pathway that might help explain the link between alcohol and cancer spread.
The study showed that alcohol stimulates what is called the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, in which run-of-the-mill cancer cells morph into a more aggressive form and begin to spread throughout the body.
"Our data are the first to show that alcohol turns on certain signals inside a cell that are involved in this critical transition," said Dr Christopher Forsyth, assistant professor of medicine and biochemistry at Rush University Medical Center and lead author of the study.
"Cancer cells become dangerous when they metastasize. Surgery can remove a tumor, but aggressive tumor cells invade tissues throughout the body and take over. If we can thwart this transition, we can limit cancer's toll," Forsyth added.
During the study, researchers treated colon and breast cancer cell lines with alcohol and then looked for the biochemical hallmarks of the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, including evidence of a transcription factor called Snail and of the receptor for epidermal growth factor.
Snail controls the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition; when overexpressed in mice, it induces the formation of multiple tumors. Epidermal growth factor is required by many cancer cells.
It showed that alcohol activated both these and other biochemicals characteristic of the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition.
The study also showed that the alcohol-treated cells had lost their tight junctions with adjacent cells, a preparation for migrating, as metastatic cells do.
The study is published in the current issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.