East Asian people are more likely to develop a more aggressive type of stomach cancer due to their higher likelihood of alcohol intolerance, according to a new study by researchers in Japan.
The researchers’ findings, published this week in the scientific journal Nature Genetics, associate lower alcohol tolerance with a higher risk of diffuse stomach cancer, a rarer type of gastric cancer that affects more than one area of the stomach.
Dr William Dahut, scientific director of the American Cancer Society, said the study – which collected cells from nearly 1,500 stomach cancer patients in Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore and the United States – was the first large genomic analysis of gastric cancer.
“There is an interesting combination between the development of the mutation and a specific genotype in East Asians, which interferes with alcohol metabolism,” said Dahut, who was not involved in the study. “It appears that by having that genotype, they are more likely to develop a specific tumor mutation.”
East Asian populations have long been disproportionately affected by stomach cancer than those in Western countries. Half of all gastric cancer cases worldwide occur in China, and it is the most common type of cancer among men in Japan. Yet in the United States, gastric cancer accounts for only about 1.5 percent of all new cancers diagnosed each year.
People of East Asian heritage are much more likely to inherit a genetic mutation not commonly seen in other ethnic groups that impairs the ability to metabolize alcohol. This is the same mutation responsible for facial flushing after drinking often referred to as the “Asian glow,” according to study co-author Tatsuhiro Shibata.
Shibata, who heads the cancer genomics division at Japan’s National Cancer Center Research Institute, said he hopes these findings make it easier for researchers to detect patterns in the occurrence of stomach cancer.
“We could develop a specific way to detect areas and perhaps prevent certain types of cancer,” he said.
The inability of many East Asians to process alcohol properly allows it to linger in the stomach for a long time, making frequent drinkers more likely to develop chronic gastritis, said Ajay Goel, gastrointestinal cancer detection researcher at the City of Hope Medical Center in California and was not involved in the new research.
“This essentially leads to chronic inflammation within the stomach,” Goel said. “And eventually, after years and years of repeated exposure, these patients tend to have a higher incidence of gastric cancer.”
Cases of gastric cancer are also statistically much more common in men than in women. But that makes sense from a behavioral perspective, Goel said, rather than being due to intrinsic genetic factors. Data shows that East Asian men tend to consume significantly more alcohol than their female counterparts.
As with any type of cancer, early detection is critical to treating stomach cancer. But because of the relative infrequency in the West compared to other types, such as breast, cervical and colon cancers, the United States does not routinely screen for gastric cancer.
“It’s increasingly important information about the power of knowing your own genomics,” Dahut said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com