Implications of acetaldehyde-derived DNA adducts for understanding alcohol-related carcinogenesis

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2015:815:71-88. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-09614-8_5.


Among various potential mechanisms that could explain alcohol carcinogenicity, the metabolism of ethanol to acetaldehyde represents an obvious possible mechanism, at least in some tissues. The fundamental principle of genotoxic carcinogenesis is the formation of mutagenic DNA adducts in proliferating cells. If not repaired, these adducts can result in mutations during DNA replication, which are passed on to cells during mitosis. Consistent with a genotoxic mechanism, acetaldehyde does react with DNA to form a variety of different types of DNA adducts. In this chapter we will focus more specifically on N2-ethylidene-deoxyguanosine (N2-ethylidene-dG), the major DNA adduct formed from the reaction of acetaldehyde with DNA and specifically highlight recent data on the measurement of this DNA adduct in the human body after alcohol exposure. Because results are of particular biological relevance for alcohol-related cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract (UADT), we will also discuss the histology and cytology of the UADT, with the goal of placing the adduct data in the relevant cellular context for mechanistic interpretation. Furthermore, we will discuss the sources and concentrations of acetaldehyde and ethanol in different cell types during alcohol consumption in humans. Finally, in the last part of the chapter, we will critically evaluate the concept of carcinogenic levels of acetaldehyde, which has been raised in the literature, and discuss how data from acetaldehyde genotoxicity are and can be utilized in physiologically based models to evaluate exposure risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaldehyde / metabolism*
  • Acetaldehyde / toxicity
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase / deficiency
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • DNA Adducts / toxicity*
  • DNA Damage
  • Ethanol / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*


  • DNA Adducts
  • Ethanol
  • ALDH2 protein, human
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Acetaldehyde