UBC-based nonprofit MEDIC Foundation cuts into the heart of chronic conditions

The student-led organization has steadily grown from three to 25 members in two years.

Anjali Menon may have grown up in Vancouver, but she flew back to Mumbai every year to visit her grandmother. They were very close, so she was shocked when she heard that her grandmother had passed from an untimely death. 

“Nobody knew that she was actually surviving with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder,” says Menon. “It came as such a surprise to our family. I was 16 at the time, and I was just so devastated. Thinking about this made me want to go into biomedical engineering.”

But right after she was accepted into UBC’s school of biomedical engineering, Menon’s mother got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Menon recalls her mother struggling to find an appropriate clinician in Vancouver, and claims that taking care of relatives with chronic diseases pushed her to do something about how treatment was delivered to patients. 

At the end of her first year, Menon and classmate Madhini Vigneswaran decided to launch a nonprofit called MEDIC Foundation. Since 2020, the Vancouver-based organization has been trying to make treatment for people diagnosed with chronic conditions more accessible and convenient, steadily growing from three to 25 student members over two years. 

With local support from UBC and nonprofit organization Open Source Medical Supplies, MEDIC partners with research labs and companies to target four areas close to its founders’ hearts: anxiety and depression, Parkinson’s, cancer and diabetes. 

According to its founders, having international connections is an integral part of their growth as an impactful organization—and that just so happens to be Vigneswaran’s bailiwick.

Treating chronic diseases in foreign communities

Vigneswaran, who was raised in Sri Lanka and Nigeria, moved to Vancouver in 2019 to study biomedical engineering at UBC. She has family in both countries, but unfortunately, many of her relatives in Sri Lanka still live in rural areas that were attacked by chemical bombs during the decades-long civil war. Some of them are still undergoing treatment for cancer. Vigneswaran is now on a mission to use knowledge and resources garnered through MEDIC Foundation to identify an AI algorithm that can help with cancer profiling. 

But resource allocation is always a difficult and daunting task in rural communities, especially in countries with turbulent economies. “In Sri Lanka, with the ongoing economic crisis, they just don’t have enough resources to support everybody,” Vigneswaran maintains. Even in Nigeria, where her dad was diagnosed with diabetes, it’s hard to get insulin pumps delivered to your door. So he has to travel abroad to access treatment. 

How connections can support research collaboration

So far, MEDIC has won accolades (including first place at last year’s OSMS-Spark contest) for its anxiety/depression wristband, prototyped for elderly folk stuck indoors during COVID-19. 

The organization is currently working on a project to make low-cost insulin pumps for diabetes more accessible. “We’re going to focus on the rural communities in Sri Lanka,” Vigneswaran says of the foundation’s partnerships with international hospitals and nonprofits. “We’re hoping to develop a local prototype . . . and during the final stage, we are planning to go there and test it out.”

Despite being undergraduate students that have struggled to get businesses, organizations and researchers to take them seriously, MEDIC’s co-founders believe that the local healthcare industry is lacking connections to foreign communities. That’s why Menon and Vigneswaran are working with causes that are close to them and applying the research to places they have roots in. 

“People here think that they can change the world just by calling someone and saying that they have an idea and trying to collaborate that way. But we have a personal connection,” Menon adds. “That’s why we believe we can make a real difference, because of this connection.”