Oral and nasopharyngeal cancer
In 2020, 377,713 individuals were diagnosed with oral cancer and 177,757 died of the disease globally. Sadly, Asians account for 74% of the deaths due to oral cancer.

In 2020, 133,354 individuals were diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer globally. Nasopharyngeal cancer is among the five most common cancers in Malaysia, and is 40 times more likely to affect Asians than Caucasians.

Because oral and nasopharyngeal cancers disproportionately affects Asians, we are doing everything we can to find better ways to screen for and treat the cancer more effectively, focusing specifically on the features of Asians that are different from other populations.
Our researchers aim to:
  • Develop an AI-enabled mobile app for early detection of oral cancers
  • Find the Achilles heel of and develop repurposed drugs for oral and nasopharyngeal cancers
  • Develop immunotherapy to treat oral and nasopharyngeal cancers more effectively

Early detection

Oral cancer is a visible cancer that is amenable to early detection. Unfortunately, there are more than 40 types of growths or lesions that can be found in the mouth, and it isn’t always possible to access a medical expert to tell the difference between a lesion that is a cancer and one that is non-cancerous.

We led the largest study in Southeast Asians to develop a database of images of different types of oral lesions and have used this to develop an AI-enabled mobile phone app that can accurately distinguish a lesion that is cancer from one that is non-cancerous. Together with our partners, we aim to enable individuals, particularly those in remote locations where access to doctors is more limited, to detect oral cancer at an early stage so that it can be cured.


Today, there have been major advances in cancer treatment because of our understanding on how cancers happen (and which treatments can target these genetic changes to kill cancer cells). Such an understanding of genomics has played an important part in creating more effective therapies for breast, lung and many other cancers, but unfortunately, there is little done in genomics of Asian cancers including oral and nasopharyngeal cancer.

Our study on gene and drug screening of oral cancer in Asians, one of the largest study of its kind, is being used as the basis to develop more effective treatment options for oral cancer.

How we’ve made a difference

  1. Developed MeMoSA (Mobile Mouth Screening Anywhere), an AI-enabled Mobile App for early detection of oral cancer.
  2. Developed oral cancer cell lines, which are now being used in 31 different groups around the world. These valuable resources help scientists understand how cancers develop, and what drugs could be potent in treating them.
  3. Developed a cancer vaccine that is able to control tumour growth by up to 97% and licensed this to a biopharmaceutical company for human clinical trials.

What we’re doing now

  1. Collaborating with University Malaya and Ministry of Health to determine the impact of MeMoSA on early detection of oral cancer in rural locations in Malaysia.
  2. Collaborating with University Malaya and other hospitals in a clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of combining immunotherapy and chemotherapy in the treatment of aggressive head and neck cancers.
  3. Collaborating with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, McGill University and others to repurpose drugs to treat oral and nasopharyngeal cancer.
  4. Collaborating with biopharmaceutical partners to develop cancer vaccines for oral and nasopharyngeal cancers.