Oral cancer can soon be detected via app


SUBANG JAYA: An artificial intelligence-­enabled handphone app for early detection of oral cancer is expected to benefit those in rural areas with limited access to specialists.

It is currently being developed by Universiti Malaya (UM) and Cancer Research Malaysia in collaboration with Prof Sarah Barman of Britain’s Kingston University.

This is being carried out on a £146,920 (RM797,768) research grant from the United Kingdom Medical Research Council.

Cancer Research Malaysia head and neck cancer research head Prof Dr Cheong Sok Ching said although Malaysia was fortunate to have universal health coverage, cancer diagnostic services was still limited in rural settings.

“So, those needing healthcare there have to commute to bigger cities in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia or to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu,” he said.

The travelling, he added, often deterred people from seeking treatment.

Oral cancer is among the top five most common cancers in Asia.

“Tragically, the majority of cancer patients seek treatment when their disease has reached an advanced stage,” said Prof Cheong, who is also one of the lead investigators of the study.

“This challenge of accessing early detection in rural settings is common in low- and middle-income countries and mobile apps powered by AI may be the best answer,” he said.

While Cancer Research Malaysia has already developed an app that can capture images of oral cavity, it is still expensive and time-consuming as it relies on trained oral medicine specialists to interpret the data.

The collaboration for AI solutions will enable the rapid reading of mobile phone images.

The project, said Prof Cheong, would build on existing partnerships with oral specialists in Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Prof Barman said the challenge of developing deep learning algorithms and applying them to a range of images taken on a mobile phone was exciting.

“We are looking forward to working with our colleagues at UM and Cancer Research Malaysia on this project, which may have a global health impact,” she said.

British High Commissioner to Malaysia Vicki Treadell said such an app would not only make oral cancer detection more accessible for people in the rural areas but with the continuous growth in handphone penetration, the technology could be applied more widely to address other global health issues.

“Malaysia has one of the highest penetration of mobile phones, with an average of 1.8 phones for every citizen and this number could grow further in the next few years,” she pointed out.

With the cost of mobile data continuing to drop, this could also improve access to smartphones, added Treadell.

“This is going to be a very impactful healthcare project with the innovation and insights of AI,” she said.

UM Faculty Of Computer Science and Information Technology Department of Artificial Intelligence Assoc Prof Dr Chan Chee Seng said its team could not wait to start on the new challenge.