Person with cancerous cell growth on forehead

Cancer is what happens when our cells don’t die when they should but continue to divide and multiply to produce a lump or bump where there shouldn’t be one. Cancers don’t grow new functioning organs: skin cancer doesn’t grow you a new skin, lung cancer doesn’t grow you a new lung – because it is just one type of cell in a beautiful, complex, multicellular organ, that is multiplying when it shouldn’t. These lumps of cancer cells can get in the way of how our bodies are working by blocking tubes, squashing nerves and doing damage to our organs. If a cancer cell breaks away from the first cancer, it can spread around the body, stick somewhere else and grow a secondary cancer. The cells of our immune system can kill off some cancer cells but they have to be careful not to kill our own healthy cells so this is a tricky process. Understanding our immune system may help researchers to target cancer cells.

Our cells usually kill themselves when they are no longer needed but, every now and then, one doesn’t and becomes cancerous. This is more likely to happen if the DNA inside that individual cell has been damaged in some way, by UV light (sunburn) or by an inherited change to a gene that is involved in telling cells when to stay alive and when to kill themselves. Researchers try to understand the genes and proteins involved in cell suicide (apoptosis) because they may be targets for cancer therapies. 

For cancer cells to keep growing and dividing they need our blood to bring them more oxygen and nutrients in a process called inflammation. Inflammation is important for our bodies to react to a wound but long-term inflammation can support the development of cancer. Researchers try to understand how inflammation starts and stops and why it might not work properly to come up with new treatments for people with EB.

People with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB) have an increased likelihood of developing a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This is a non-melanoma skin cancer with a lower likelihood of spreading to other parts of the body than melanoma (5% or 1 in 20). It starts in the top layer of skin (epidermis) where the multiplying cancer cells form a firm lump that may feel tender and bleed easily. 


Image credit: Squamous Cell Carcinoma, by BruceBlaus. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.