The use of plants in medicine is as old as medicine itself. Today, in the age of high-tech drug design, the pharmaceutical industry continues to draw on naturally occurring compounds in its search for new treatments. The fragrance and nutritional supplement industries are perhaps even more reliant on plant-sourced chemicals.
But where to find them? Morocco is a country rich in untapped medicinal and aromatic plant life. Morocco's Institut National des Plantes Médicinales et Aromatiques (INPMA) estimates that there are around 4,200 species to be found there, of which 800 are found only within the kingdom.
Of course, investment in such research is not as plentiful in Morocco as it is in Europe. The MAP2ERA project, made possible by a contribution of €442,605 from the EU, is therefore a much needed boost. The project was launched in December 2010 to run for two years and its overarching goal is to reinforce the international research cooperation between INMAP and scientists in Europe.
MAP2ERA is the first EU-funded research project to be coordinated by a Moroccan university. It is also therefore leading the way in the integration of Morocco in the European Research Area (ERA). This integration, says Professor Abdessalam El Khanchoufi, Director of INPMA and Scientific Project Leader for MAP2ERA, is of mutual benefit, not only from a scientific point of view, but also for its "considerable political and strategic virtues".
The three project partners are the Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles (ICSN) in France, the University of Alicante in Spain and Giraf PM, a German project management company.
The project is not yet completed but, according to Professor El Khanchoufi, it is "already an undeniable success". Project researchers have published in journals and books, and patents have been filed. Small businesses are being set up to exploit the early findings.
One of the fundamental goals of the project is to help with the training and networking of the INPMA researchers. This, too, has been a success with the first network and training event resulting in the filing of an application for a new research project in the field of renewable biowaste. In this way, MAP2ERA may have encouraged further research collaboration between Morocco and the EU.
Meanwhile, three researchers from INPMA currently benefit from internships at the prestigious ICSN, and three more are soon to follow in their footsteps. Participating in MAP2ERA has aided INPMA's inclusion in the wider scientific community and the Institute has presented at several international conferences. Staff have built strong links with researchers in the partner institutions.
These kinds of collaborative opportunities are rare for scientists in Morocco, despite their obvious benefit to industry and academia across the Mediterranean. As Professor El Khanchoufi says, "Morocco is a developing country and despite all efforts, national budgets dedicated to research remain very poor. Research remains a very expensive activity which cannot be performed seriously without partnerships with European research centres and private companies."
MAP2ERA is very much a pilot project, as yet uncompleted, but there are sufficient signs to suggest that it will indeed spur further collaboration between the north and the south shores of the Mediterranean and benefit all parties involved.