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WHEN IT COMES to research involving alcohol and health they are usually related to benefits derived from consuming beer, wine or spirits. Now a new study shows that using pure alcohol just may be successful at killing cancer cells. A jelly-like implant filled with pure alcohol could be a powerful treatment for cancer. The implant is injected into the middle of a tumor, where it slowly releases tiny amounts of ethanol – the pure alcohol that makes up a small percentage of wine. As it comes into contact with tumor cells, the ethanol destroys them by poisoning vital proteins the cells need to replicate. Doctors have long known that “drowning” cancer cells in pure alcohol can be an effective way of killing them. However, alcohol also destroys healthy surrounding tissue, and it takes relatively large amounts of alcohol to completely eradicate tumor cells, exposing normal cells to its toxic effects. As a result, its use has been confined to cancers where the tumor is contained within a fibrous capsule that prevents the alcohol leaking out, such as small liver tumors. In this case, a needle is passed through the skin under local anesthetic to squirt alcohol into the cancerous cells.

The revolutionary implant, developed at Duke University, in North Carolina, has so far only been tested on animals, but could mean alcohol is used more widely to wipe out most tumors. Scientists mixed ethanol with ethyl cellulose, a substance made from wood pulp or cotton that is widely used as a thickening agent in the food industry and to coat medicines. The result was a firm, jelly-like substance, which, once it comes into contact with the moist conditions inside the body, gradually starts to dissolve over the space of a week or so, releasing its alcoholic cargo. The key is that it dissolves slowly, so small amounts of alcohol are released into the area of the tumor rather than flooding the area and neighboring healthy cells with injected alcohol. To test it, scientists implanted the gel into seven mice with malignant tumors in the mouth and measured the size of the cancerous growth after eight days. The results, published recently in the journal SCIENTIFIC REPORTS, showed the tumors completely disappeared in the seven mice given the implant, whereas only four out of seven injected with alcohol saw tumors disappear.

Researchers said the amount of alcohol in the gel implant was a fraction of that needed when injected, reducing the amount of possible damage to healthy cells. The gel could potentially be used to treat other cancers, such as breast, and scientists are planning trials to treat pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix. One of the biggest advantages is that the treatment could be very cheap, as ethanol costs less than $2 a gallon.