By Pete Wedderburn

Why does cancer happen? Cancer is difficult to treat, and if we could identify the cause, we could prevent the condition developing in the first place.

Basically, an animal’s body is made up of billions of tiny cells, and each cell has an element of independence. Nearly always, cells replicate themselves in just the right numbers, so that animals’ bodies remain healthy. The skin is probably a good place to imagine this process in action. When skin cells are functioning normally, the surface of the skin remains smooth and flat. If the skin is damaged, the adjoining skin cells multiply more rapidly. New, healthy skin cells move in to replace the damaged area of skin.

Somehow, cells ‘know’ when to replicate, and when to stop replicating. As a result, the skin remains as a smooth continuous layer. A wart is a good example of the process going slightly awry. For some reason, a small number of cells lose their ability to ‘know’ how to behave, and they start to multiply more rapidly than normal. This rapid multiplication causes a small tower of cells to emerge, lifting up above the adjoining flat areas of skin. Soon, a wart has formed. Warts are benign, and once they have reached a certain size and shape, they stop growing. It is as if the cells involved regard the wart as ‘normal skin’. They then continue to replicate as needed to maintain the shape of the wart.

Why do these cells ‘decide’ to form a wart?

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