Alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenase polymorphisms and a new strategy for prevention and screening for cancer in the upper aerodigestive tract in East Asians

Keio J Med. 2010;59(4):115-30. doi: 10.2302/kjm.59.115.


The ethanol in alcoholic beverages and the acetaldehyde associated with alcohol consumption are Group 1 human carcinogens (WHO, International Agency for Research on Cancer). The combination of alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, the inactive heterozygous aldehyde dehydrogenase-2 genotype (ALDH2*1/*2) and the less-active homozygous alcohol dehydrogenase-1B genotype (ADH1B*1/*1) increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in the upper aerodigestive tract (UADT) in a multiplicative fashion in East Asians. In addition to being exposed to locally high levels of ethanol, the UADT is exposed to a very high concentration of acetaldehyde from a variety of sources, including that as an ingredient of alcoholic beverages per se and that found in tobacco smoke; acetaldehyde is also produced by salivary microorganisms and mucosal enzymes and is present as blood acetaldehyde. The inefficient degradation of acetaldehyde by weakly expressed ALDH2 in the UADT may be cri! tical to the local accumulation of acetaldehyde, especially in ALDH2*1/*2 carriers. ADH1B*1/*1 carriers tend to experience less intense alcohol flushing and are highly susceptible to heavy drinking and alcoholism. Heavy drinking by persons with the less-active ADH1B*1/*1 leads to longer exposure of the UADT to salivary ethanol and acetaldehyde. The ALDH2*1/*2 genotype is a very strong predictor of synchronous and metachronous multiple SCCs in the UADT. High red cell mean corpuscular volume (MCV), esophageal dysplasia, and melanosis in the UADT, all of which are frequently found in ALDH2*1/*2 drinkers, are useful for identifying high-risk individuals. We invented a simple flushing questionnaire that enables prediction of the ALDH2 phenotype. New health appraisal models that include ALDH2 genotype, the simple flushing questionnaire, or MCV are powerful tools for devising a new strategy for prevention and screening for UADT cancer in East Asians.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaldehyde / adverse effects
  • Acetaldehyde / blood
  • Acetaldehyde / metabolism
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase* / genetics
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase* / metabolism
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics
  • Alcoholism / genetics
  • Alcoholism / metabolism
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase* / genetics
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase* / metabolism
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Asia, Eastern
  • Asian People / genetics
  • Carcinogens / administration & dosage
  • Carcinogens / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / chemically induced
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / physiopathology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / prevention & control
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Ethanol / adverse effects
  • Ethanol / blood
  • Ethanol / metabolism
  • Female
  • Flushing / genetics
  • Flushing / metabolism
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / prevention & control
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Phenotype
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking / genetics
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Carcinogens
  • Ethanol
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase
  • ALDH2 protein, human
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Acetaldehyde