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  • UHG Team

Can Sugar Give You Cancer?

Cancer risk is at least 2.5 times higher for someone with diabetes than those without.

Diabetes has become a common disease in the UAE and across the world. And new studies now show that, in addition to known effects of diabetes, patients could have higher risk of cancers.

Is sugar killing you?

This week, Gulf News published an explainer on why sugar is bad for you - diabetic or not. Governments everywhere, including the UAE, are taking policy actions — through taxation. A sugar tax adopted by the UAE in October 2017, increased the cost of carbonated soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, by 50 per cent.

Figures from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) revealed that, in 2017, 17.3 per cent of the UAE population between the ages of 20 and 79 have type 2 diabetes.

There are over 1 million people living with diabetes in the UAE, placing the country 15th worldwide for age-adjusted comparative prevalence.


Researchers have found that DNA sustains more damage and gets fixed less often when blood sugar levels are high compared to when blood sugar is at a normal, healthy level, thereby increasing one's cancer risk.

"It's been known for a long time that people with diabetes have as much as a 2.5-fold increased risk for certain cancers," said John Termini from City of Hope, a research and treatment center for cancer and diabetes in the US.

These cancers include ovarian, breast, kidney and others. But why people with Type-1 or Type-2 diabetes run higher risk of these cancers has been a mystery for a long time.

The 'why'

The new findings could offer a possible explanation for this double whammy.

Termini wondered if the elevated blood glucose levels seen in diabetes could harm DNA, making the genome unstable, which could lead to cancer.

So Termini and colleagues looked for a specific type of damage in the form of chemically modified DNA bases, known as adducts, in tissue culture and rodent models of diabetes.

Indeed, they found a DNA adduct, called N2-(1-carboxyethyl)-2'-deoxyguanosine, or CEdG, that occurred more frequently in the diabetic models than in normal cells or mice.

What's more, high glucose levels interfered with the cells' process for fixing it.

"Exposure to high glucose levels leads to both DNA adducts and the suppression of their repair, which in combination could cause genome instability and cancer," Termini said.

Termini and colleagues have recently completed a clinical study that measured the levels of CEdG, as well as its counterpart in RNA (CEG), in people with Type-2 diabetes.

As in mice, people with diabetes had significantly higher levels of both CEdG and CEG than people without the disease.

The findings are scheduled to be presented at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2019 National Meeting and Exposition being held in San Diego, California, from August 25-29.

How much sugar are you consuming

As explained in our special report on the effects of sugar, we fail to realise just how much sugar we like to have daily.

One estimate, by UK insurance provider Protectivity in May 2018 using 2017/18 human consumption data from the US Department of Agriculture's data, shows that a UAE resident consumes an average of 103 litres of soft drinks a year. An average adult here consumes 3,000 calories per day.

Moreover, the UAE already is among the top consumers of sugar with an average person taking 213kg per year. This is equivalent to 53,591 teaspoons annually or 146 teaspoons per person daily, according to the same data set.

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