Chronic alcohol abuse is considered to be an important risk factor for disease worldwide. In addition, alcohol and its metabolite, acetaldehyde, are recognized as carcinogens that contribute to four percent of cancer deaths. Although scientific studies began to show this association over 100 years ago, the role of alcohol in chronic diseases such as cancer is still not well understood by the public and medical professionals. The 4th International Conference on Alcohol and Cancer was organized by Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD, the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology, sponsored by the Department of Environmental Health Sciences of the Yale School of Public Health, and supported by an R13 grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The conference, held in Newport, R.I., brought together 75 international scholars with special interest in alcohol and/or cancer.
The conference was opened on April 15 by Elisabeth Weiderpass, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, who outlined the current burden of alcohol-related disease worldwide and the existing research gaps that she considers a priority, including understanding dose amounts and the mechanisms by which ethanol affects the body. Other keynote speakers included Richard Caprioli (Vanderbilt University) who discussed state-of-the-art tissue imaging mass spectrometry, Michael Karin (University of California San Diego) who presented novel mechanisms involved in liver hepatocarcinogenesis, Hide Tsukamoto (University of Southern California) who discussed reprogramming of lipid metabolism in stellate cells during liver carcinogenesis and Charles Fuchs (the director of Yale Cancer Center) who covered big data approaches to prevent and treat colorectal cancer.
Yale School of Public Health researchers, including Drs. Yawei Zhang, Caroline Johnson, Joshua Wallach and Yong Zhu, and several members of the Vasiliou research team offered findings on meta-analysis of stomach cancer, reproducible research practices, sex differences in cancer metabolism, metabolomics of alcoholic liver disease, and the development of a novel mouse model to investigate colorectal cancer.
The three-day conference offered lively discussion and debate on current research and what separates healthy from unhealthy drinking. Although small amounts of alcohol (e.g., a glass of wine with dinner 2-3 times a week) may not be harmful, heavy drinking (i.e., more than 30 grams of ethanol or three glasses of wine per day) is a risk factor for alcohol-related diseases, including cancer. However, it is not clear whether ethanol alone, or its combination with other exposures, such as cigarette smoke, and other environmental contaminants, causes disease. “We need to start looking at alcohol in the context of the exposome, a measure of all the exposures a person has throughout their lifetime and their interactions,” Vasiliou said.
Other conference participants represented the National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the Aichi Cancer Center in Japan, the Yale Cancer Center and leading universities from around the world. Their research enterprises range from understanding alcohol’s role in cancer from an epidemiological perspective to elucidation of biochemical pathways that mediate ethanol’s effects in cancer development. New research presented at the meeting revealed promising strategies for prevention of alcoholic liver disease (including public policy which effects drinking patterns and access to alcohol) and genomic and mouse models for studying alcohol-induced tissue or organ injury. Such models suggest that DNA repair and cancer stem cells are affected by alcohol, results that provide a mechanistic basis for induction of cancer. The conference proceedings will be published in a special edition of the Chemico-Biological Interactions journal later this year.
Vasiliou’s laboratory investigates the role of alcohol and the antioxidant, glutathione, in alcohol metabolism, cancer development, and cellular responses to environmental stress and disease. Currently, his laboratory uses multi-omics approaches, including metabolomics, redox proteomics, tissue imaging mass spectrometry and deep-learning, to reveal the mechanisms involved in the alcohol-induced liver and other tissues injury and cancer.
“The molecular mechanisms linking alcohol and disease need to be better understood and this conference allowed us to take an important step in that direction,” said Vasiliou.