A thorough cannabis product development process goes far beyond extracting and packaging. Performing advanced analytical testing at each and every stage allows producers to know the quantity, quality and behaviour of compounds in samples. Here are the four key stages from flower to consumption.
Stage 1: Flower
Developing a quality cannabis product begins with knowing the composition of compounds in your starting material. The best analytical tests utilize a metabolomics approach. Metabolomics is a suite of techniques that include a variety of instruments to run samples through in order to receive compositional data. In this stage, LC-qTOF and GC-MS are the best instruments to track all the compounds in the starting plant material. Essentially, metabolomics establishes a fingerprint of the compounds in a plant sample. This is beneficial because producers have to understand how their chosen cannabis plant differs from other cultivars and how it would potentially behave in their desired end product formulations.
Stage 2: Concentrate
After the plant material has gone through an extraction process, producers want to know precisely what is in the extract. Are there compounds that should not be there and are all the desired compounds present? The best way to test the quality of cannabis oils is again to use metabolomics (e.g. via LC-qTOF). This test reveals all the compounds in the sample in order to help the producer determine the purity and consistency of molecules beyond just THC and CBD.
When testing cannabis isolates, it is best to use NMR spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction. NMR characterizes and assesses the purity of single compounds or mixtures in solution or solid state. X-ray diffraction provides information about the crystal structure, chemical composition and the physical properties of the cannabis sample to help the producer prove the identification of desired compounds. Establishing that the concentrates are pure and aligned with what the producer intended to extract is key in this stage of product development.
Stage 3: Formulation
Designing an appropriate drug delivery formula is a universal challenge producers face at this stage of product development. Where nanoemulsion or other carrier approaches are being used, formulation characterization allows producers to understand how their active compounds behave in simulated physiological environments as well as how stable their products are over time. Specifically, nanoparticle sizing and assessing size changes over time can help a formulation scientist ensure the highest quality product is being mixed, and that the desired effect will be imparted on the consumer/patient.
Stage 4: Smoke/Vapor
Many producers might not consider this final stage, but it is critical for all inhalable cannabis products and devices. Using a smoke analyzer and metabolomics testing can identify and quantify compounds present within the formed smoke or vapor from pre-roll joints to vape devices. This is not only important for preventing the production of toxic by-products, but it can help producers create an optimal smoking experience for consumers.
One area that is often an afterthought is quality compliance testing. Despite a number of groups using the required tests well during development, many forget to continue the same robust testing on end products. In the current cannabis product development landscape, there is little guidance on how compliance testing should be conducted on every product “batch.” With these advanced analytical tests, producers can confidently develop compliant, stable and quality cannabis products.
According to a press release sent out last week, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV) has expanded their testing capabilities considerably with the new addition of a vapor/smoke analyzer. CBDV is a licensed cannabis and psilocybin research laboratory embedded in the University of British Columbia, led by CEO Dr. Markus Roggen.
The ability to analyze vapor and smoke is a relatively novel concept for the cannabis space, but has been utilized by the tobacco industry for years now. In the early days of adult-use cannabis legalization in the United States, stringent testing regulations for contaminants like pesticides were adopted out of a fear for what would happen when consumers ingest toxic levels of contaminants.
One of the common refrains iterated throughout the industry over the past ten years was that there just wasn’t enough research on how different contaminants affect patients and consumers when burned and inhaled. We still don’t know too much about what happens when someone smokes a dangerous pesticide, such as myclobutanil. Beyond just contaminants, the new technology allows for companies to measure precise levels of cannabinoids in vapor and smoke, getting a more accurate reading on what cannabinoids are actually making it to the end user.
This new development coming from our neighbor to the north could lead to a breakthrough in the cannabis lab testing and research space. CBDV claims they can now analyze cannabis material with a much more in-depth analysis than basic compliance testing labs. The new technology for analysis of smoke, vapor, plant material and formulations allows companies to thoroughly understand their materials in each stage of the product formulation process, all the way to product consumption.
Beyond just smoke and vapor analysis CBDV also offers NMR spectroscopy, metabolomics, nanoparticle characterization, computational modeling and other testing services that go far beyond the traditional compliance testing gamut.
“Our new services offer comprehensive insights into plant material, extracts, end-products and even the smoke/vapor by using state-of-the-art analytical instruments,” says Dr. Roggen. “By understanding the chemical fingerprint of the material, cannabis producers can eliminate impurities, adjust potencies, and optimize extraction processes before wasting money and resources on producing inconsistent end products. As a chemist I am really excited about adding NMR and high-res mass spectroscopy to the cannabis testing offerings.”
Dr. Markus Roggen is a chemist, professor, cannabis researcher and founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV). Founder & CEO of Ascension Sciences (ASI), Tomas Skrinskas has been at the leading edge of transformative healthcare technologies, including computer assisted surgery, surgical robotics and genetic nanomedicines, for over 15 years.
Leading researchers from the cannabis industry – Dr. Markus Roggen (Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures) and Tomas Skrinskas (Ascension Sciences) – highlight the challenges facing the industry’s current compliance testing standards and the opportunities emerging from the latest developments in nanotechnology and advanced analytical testing. Here are the key insights from the discussion.
What are the current compliance testing requirements for cannabis products? Are they sufficient in ensuring safety and quality?
In the current landscape, Canada’s compliance testing requirements are clearly laid out in the form of guidance documents. Specifically, for pesticide testing, cannabinoid concentration content in products, heavy metals, etc. Compliance testing can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) establishing the concentrations of wanted compounds, and 2) ensuring that unwanted compounds do not exceed safety limits.
In the first category, cannabinoids and terpenes are quantified. Their presence or absence is not generally forbidden but must stay within limits. For example, for material to be classified as hemp, the THC concentration cannot exceed 0.3 %wt., or a serving of cannabis edible should contain below 5 mg of THC. The second category of compliance testing focuses on pesticides, mold and heavy metals. The regulators have provided a list of substances to test for and set limits on those.
Are those rules sufficient to ensure safety and quality? Safety can only be ensured if all dangerous compounds are known and tested for. Take for example Vitamin E acetate, the substance linked to lung damage in some THC vape consumers and the EVALI outbreak. Prior to the caseload in the Fall of 2019, there were no requirements to test for it. It’s not only additives that are of concern. THC distillates often show THC concentrations of 90% plus 5% other cannabinoids. What are the last 5% of this mixture? Currently, those substances have not been identified. Are they safe? There is no concrete way to determine that.
The aforementioned guidelines have the best intentions, but do not adequately address two key obstacles the industry is currently facing: 1) what happens in practice, and 2) what can easily be audited? Making sure people follow the requirements is the challenge, and it comes down to variability of the tests. Testing has to happen on the final form of the product as well as every “batch,” but there is little guidance on how that is defined. With so much growth happening in the industry, how are these records even tracked and scrutinized?
And finally, there’s the question of quality. How do you define quality? Before establishing quantifiable quality attributes, it can’t be tested.
If compliance testing is insufficient, then why aren’t more cannabis companies testing beyond Health Canada’s requirements?
Compliance testing has always been focused on the end product, THC and CBD levels, and consumer safety. As long as cannabis companies are testing to determine this, doing further testing means added costs to the producer. There is a rush to get cannabis products to the new market because many consumers are eager to buy adult use products such as extracts or edibles, and quality is not the biggest selling point at this very moment.
However, there are unrealized advantages to advanced analytical testing that go beyond Health Canada’s requirements and that offer greater benefits to cannabis producers and product developers. Producers often see testing as an added cost to their production that is forced upon them by the regulators and will only test once the product is near completion. For cannabinoid therapeutics and nutraceuticals, advanced analytical testing is critical for determining the chemical makeup and overall quality of the formulation. This is where contract researchers, such as Ascension Sciences, come in to offer tests for nanoparticle characterization, cannabinoid concentration, dissolution profiles and encapsulation efficiency.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from advanced analytical testing. However, testing that goes beyond lawful requirements is an opportunity to save money and resources in the long term. This is where companies, like Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV), offer in-process testing that provides a deep characterization and analysis of cannabis samples during every stage of product development. If tests are conducted during production, inefficiencies in the process are revealed and mistakes are spotted early on. For example, testing the spent cannabis plant material after extraction can verify if the extraction actually went through to completion. In another case, testing vape oil before it goes into the vape cartridges and packaging allows producers to detect an unacceptable THC concentration before they incur additional production costs.
Which methods are the most successful for cannabis testing?
The most effective method is the one that best determines the specific data needed to meet the desired product goal. For example, NMR Spectroscopy is paramount in assessing the quality of a cannabis sample and identifying its precise chemical composition.
HPLC (liquid/gas chromatography) is the most precise method for quantifying THC, CBD and other known cannabinoids. However, if a cannabis extractor wants to quickly verify that their oil has fully decarboxylated, then an HPLC test will likely take too long and be too expensive. In this case, IR (Infrared Spectroscopy) offers a faster and more cost-effective means of obtaining the needed data. Therefore, it ultimately depends on the needs of the producer and how well the testing instruments are maintained and operated.
What’s next in analytical testing technology? What are you working on or excited about?
In terms of compliance, regulations to standardize the testing is the hot topic at the moment. For nanotechnology and nanoparticles, the big question now is what is known as the “matrix” of the sample. In other words, what are the cannabinoids, and what else is in the sample that’s changing your results? The R&D team at Ascension Sciences is in the process of developing a standardized method for this to combat the issues mentioned earlier in the interview.
Ascension Sciences is also excited about characterizing nanoparticles over time to determine how cannabinoids are released and how that data can be transferred or made equivalent to consumer experiences. For example, if a formulation with quicker release, faster onset and better bioavailability is found in the lab, product development would be more efficient and effective when compared to other, more anecdotal methods.
At CBDV, the team is working on in-process analytical tools, such as decarboxylation monitoring via IR Spectroscopy and NMR Spectroscopy. CBDV is also looking at quantifying cannabis product quality. The first project currently in motion is to identify and quantify cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds present when vaping or smoking a joint using a smoke analyzer.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from testing beyond what’s required by Health Canada. Compliance testing is designed to ensure safety, and for good reason, but it is currently insufficient at determining the quality, consistency and process improvements. As the above factors are necessary for the advancement of cannabis products, this is where further methods, such as advanced analytical testing, should be considered.
By Dr. Markus Roggen, Sajni Shah, Stella Zhu No Comments
When data analytics was first introduced in the sports industry, it was met with a lot of criticism. But then it began to show results; a popular example being the story of Oakland Athletics Manager Billy Beane, depicted in the movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. In the cannabis industry today, we face familiar hurdles. Everyone is focused on extracting as much CBD oil as they can, but not many are optimizing the process. We even hear that data analytics is too difficult, that it does not help and no one has time for it. In contrast, the sports industry nowadays widely uses statistics and analytics, because it has proved to be effective. They use data analytics to choose their players for a team so that they have the best chance to win the championship. NBA teams have entire departments focused on data analytics, so why doesn’t the cannabis industry? Focusing on basketball, what if the approach taken to pick players for an all-star team was employed in the cannabis industry? Imagine your instruments as players and their parameters as their skills. Now, all you need is data analytics to help you decide how best to optimize your team. Paying attention to the numbers, could help you win in the cannabis industry.
When thinking about players in basketball, one factor of interest is the “Players Offensive Rating”, which is the amount of points produced by a player per 100 possessions. In this scenario, you want the player to have a higher offensive rating as it means that they have a better chance of scoring points when they have the ball. Similarly, in cannabis production, you would want your instrument to yield as much product (points) per hour (possession) as possible as well. So, the cannabis extraction analogy for offensive rating is “Yield Per Hour”. By increasing the yield per hour, the instrument can extract more product in the same time frame, increasing overall output and reducing product cost per gram. In this scenario, the biggest extractor is not necessarily the fastest, and any supercritical CO2 extractor will be slower than, for example, ethanol extractors.
Another important factor that’s considered in basketball is “Shooting Efficiency,” which looks at the number of successful baskets made by a player in comparison to the number of shots taken and where the shot was taken from. Having a player with a high shooting efficiency would result in a good chance for that team scoring points over their competitors. This principle is similar in cannabis, while a high yield (number of shots) is great, you also want a high purity (baskets made) of your target compounds or “Percent Purity”. This means you will get a higher percentage of the compounds you want, such as cannabinoids, for every gram of oil extracted. Here, the supercritical CO2 extractor shows its superiority over ethanol, as density modulation of the supercritical CO2 allows for the separation of terpenes or cannabinoids from the rest.You can see that a team that has a better synergy has a higher winning rate. For the same reason, the cannabis extraction process can be optimized by adjusting the parameters of the instrument.
For one last example, let’s look at “Number of Steals” as well. This is the number of times a defensive player successfully tackles the ball from an opposing player before they manage to shoot a basket. If this is high, opponents have fewer opportunities to shoot and score points. Similarly, “Percent Recovery” in the cannabis industry is important to ensure that the target compounds in your flower are being extracted. The solvent should have the chance to extract the compounds (steal from the opposition), before the run ends (the opposition shoots). A high recovery gives a higher overall output for the materials that were input, generating more product overall. In theory, if you wait long enough every solvent can reach full recovery, but for supercritical CO2 in particular there is a practical ceiling around 80% recovery.
While thinking about these variables in isolation is the first step, it is just as important to see how the variables interplay with each other. A concept is introduced here called “synergy”. A team member must establish a good cooperation with the entire team according to their own characteristics. For example, taller and stronger players whose “Offensive Rating” is higher are more suitable for guards, while those with a high “Shooting Efficiency” are more suitable for forwards. You can see that a team that has a better synergy has a higher winning rate. For the same reason, the cannabis extraction process can be optimized by adjusting the parameters of the instrument. For example, if you increase the extraction speed, which is “Yield per Hour”, you may need to compromise on “Percent Purity” as the increased speed may not allow for the optimal extraction of target compounds. Similarly, you may also need to compromise on “Percent Recovery” as a slower extraction rate will do a better job at having a higher recovery. Thus, in order to improve the overall process of extracting oil, there needs to be a focus on analyzing the synergies between different factors to guarantee optimal parameters for your benefit.
These examples highlight some of the basic data analytics that can be conducted on your instruments. However, there’s still one challenge to consider, most professional NBA teams have entire departments just for data analytics. How can you possibly accomplish conducting these analytics for your entire cannabis LP in addition to your regular job roles? That’s where we come in. Other than the “Yield per Hour”, “Percent Purity” and “Percent Recovery” listed above, CBDV can perform customized data analysis based on your company’s data. Let our team help you integrate the “boring” and “half-baked” data, and present you with a visual and clear data analysis report. Let us help you lead your team to win that championship in cannabis!
Dr. Linda Klumpers has a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. Originally from the Netherlands, she began much of her career in studying cannabis there. She now lives and works in the United States, where she has worked on a number of projects, started her own company and is continuing her research on cannabis as an effective medicine.
After studying neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam, she went on to train at the Centre for Human Drug Research and Leiden University Medical Center, where Dr. Klumpers obtained a clinical pharmacology degree and a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. She has been researching cannabinoids in humans since 2006. Dr. Klumpers co-authored a number of peer-reviewed cannabinoid publications and she has received five honors and awards for her work, including the BJCP Prize from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
In 2016, she moved to the United States and founded Cannify, an online tool that helps patients and clinicians with product matching and providing legitimate cannabis education based in sound science. In 2018, Dr. Klumpers joined forces with Dr. Michael Tagen, another clinical pharmacologist, to launch Verdient Science, a consulting partnership. Their work at Verdient Science includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies, among other areas of focus.
Right now, Dr. Klumpers is waiting to hear back from a grant application they submitted to study THC and CBD ratios for medical efficacy in chronic pain patients. We sat down with Dr. Klumpers to hear her story, what she is working on now and how she hopes to continue researching cannabis as an effective medicine.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell us about your background as a research scientist. How did you get involved in cannabis?
Dr. Linda Klumpers: During my Ph.D. work, we studied the effects of so-called cannabinoid receptor antagonists that block the effects of THC – I prefer to say “we”, as research is always done by multiple people. The problem with studying these compounds in healthy volunteers is that you can’t observe acute effects, which means that you won’t measure any effect after a single dose. To circumvent this issue, we applied a trick and developed a ‘challenge test’: after you give the ‘invisible’ blocking compound, you stimulate the cannabinoid system by giving people THC. If the subjects don’t feel the effects of THC, you know that the blocker worked. One thing lead to another and we ended up studying various administration methods, such as intrapulmonal (via the lungs) with vaporization, oral and sublingual. We studied the behavior of cannabinoids in the body and how the body responded to them.
CIJ: Can you share some information on the projects you are working on? What is Cannify and what is Verdient Science?
Dr. Klumpers:Cannify was founded in 2016 after I saw that too many people had opinions about cannabis that were more based on emotion than fact. Besides, I noticed that a majority of the scientific literature on cannabis pharmacology was left unnoticed and unapplied to the people getting exposed to cannabis, such as patients, the cannabis industry – that was in a very different stage at that time – healthcare providers and regulators. With my Ph.D. in cannabis pharmacology, I wanted to add a level of objectivity to cannabis education and research. Cannify’s goals are to understand the science of cannabis, and share this with others.
The way we do this is multi-fold:
Cannify Quiz: Patients with an interest in cannabis often want to know the science about cannabis and their condition. Our quiz helps these people by asking in-depth questions and showing them relevant scientific literature in a personalized report. After that, an overview is given with products and product matching scores. Our account system allows users to track their progress over time. Product manufacturers, dispensaries and other companies can use the quiz for their websites and their stores to help out retail employees and save them time, and to receive insight with our analytics on customer desires and behavior. Needless to say, an educated customer is a better customer. It is important that customers come and leave stores well-informed.
Education: Speaking of education, our website contains educational articles about everything cannabis: from plant to patient and from product to mechanism of action. We regularly publish educational quizzes for people to test their knowledge level. With a free Cannify account, you can find all of our educational quizzes and save your results. We also provide customized courses, and have educated a wide audience varying from industry professionals to CME-accredited courses for healthcare providers. On top of that, our educational videos in dispensaries (in collaboration with our partner, Enlighten) reach customers and retail employees.
Research: To expand the knowledge on cannabis, performing and especially sharing research is essential. We have already performed and published some of Cannify’s results on descriptive statistics and effect prediction during conferences, as well as a review paper on cannabis therapeutics in a peer-reviewed journal and a book chapter. This year, we expect to co-publish the results of a survey in different sleep patient groups. We collaborated with the Centre of Excellence for Epilepsy and Sleep Medicine in the Netherlands on a peer-reviewed paper from which we expect new research to follow to benefit these patients. We have also co-submitted a grant to study THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients: fingers crossed! Another important next step is to test a healthcare provider-specific version of Cannify’s quiz in the clinic once COVID dies down. I want to add that after working in a clinical lab for many years, it is important to combine the results of clinical trials to what people do in real life, which is what we do with Cannify.
And here’s some information on Verdient Science:
Verdient Science is a consulting partnership I have with clinical pharmacologist Dr. Michael Tagen. We provide clinical and translational pharmacology expertise to improve the quality of product development & clinical testing. While both working as independent consultants, we decided from 2018 to start working together to offer better services. Since then, our work has been very variable and includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies to make them more efficient and cheaper, performed scientific due diligence and much more. When clients want additional services that are beyond our expertise, we are typically able to introduce them to various people per expertise area, or refer them to our partner companies, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV) with Dr. Markus Roggen, and Via Innovations with Dr. Monica Vialpando. A benefit of working with the same partners includes smooth handovers and the feeling of a one stop shop.
CIJ: How does Cannify match available products to consumer needs? Is there an algorithm you developed that matches moods or feelings to cannabinoids or chemical profiles?
Dr. Klumpers: That is a great question and the core of what we do! So back to the Cannify quiz: there are three steps:
Users fill in questions;
A personalized report is generated with the relevant science;
The user gets a product overview with product matching scores.
The report and the matching scores are generated using algorithms that are regularly updated. These algorithms are based on various data sources:
Literature: There is a lot of available literature, and we make sure to select the most relevant and reliable studies;
Raw data: There is only so much one can find in the literature, and lots is hidden in the raw data. Therefore, we piled up data from studies done at various research institutions, including the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University, and used them in our algorithms;
Internal studies: From the thousands of users filling in their results, there is a lot of information that we should learn from. This feedback loop helps us to better understand how the lab relates to real life situations.
CIJ: The world of cannabis research has been historically stymied by red tape, DEA interference and a host of federal regulations. How have you managed to work through all that? Do you have a DEA license? What did it take to get it?
Dr. Klumpers: Luckily, a majority of our research was and is done outside of the US. You still need to obtain the appropriate licenses, but I was perhaps lucky to have filled in every form very thoroughly and we got the licenses within months. The process is quite meticulous, as you need separate licenses for almost every step from manufacturing to administration. An additional complication is that our cannabis is not stored in our own building, but in the hospital pharmacy across the street, involving transport via the public road. Despite the roadblocks, including a legal procedure about this matter that was going on in parallel, I had no major issues getting our work done. For our research in the US, we were lucky to have been working with partners that already have the required license.
Also with publishing, I have never had an issue with the cannabis stigma. Generally, in my field of science, good quality science is very much welcomed and appreciated, and this was even before the time that there were four different cannabis-related journals, as is the case nowadays.
CIJ: Looking to the future, where do you hope to focus your research efforts? Where do you think the cannabis community should be focusing their efforts in the next 5-10 years?
Dr. Klumpers: Besides continuing to analyze the data generated from Cannify, I keep my fingers crossed for the grant application I mentioned earlier on THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients. Although we know that CBD is able to influence THC-induced effects, it is not known at what dosages, which ratios and how the effects are related to each other. For example: is CBD able to decrease certain side-effects of THC without decreasing pain-relieving effects?
Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are keyNext to that, I am also interested in other neurological and psychiatric disorders, and, of course, my Ph.D. love: the cannabinoid antagonists. Sadly, all the research efforts on this compound group were halted more than a decade ago. However, there is a renewed interest. I would love to help turn these compounds into effective and safe medicines.
Regarding the cannabis community: 5-10 years sounds really far away for an industry that is relatively new to many, but a lot has already changed since I started cannabis research more than 14 years ago and time has flown by. Some changes have been positive and others less so. Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are key. Many companies gather data and even publish them in peer-reviewed journals, but that does not always mean that the data are useful or that the studies were done well. Only a few minor changes to how and which data are gathered, and so much more can be done. What can help with achieving this is to let the right people do the right thing: many call themselves a ‘cannabis scientist’ or ‘cannabis expert’, but that does not mean anything. What has someone truly achieved and what is their exact expertise? A Ph.D. in chemistry is not going to help you in setting up effect studies, neither will I be able to improve your product’s shelf life or extraction yield. Getting the right people in the right place is key. Lastly: the cannabis community should stay critical. The length of one article in Cannabis Industry Journal wouldn’t be enough to lay out all the misconceptions that people have about cannabis. Make sure that those misconceptions do not live on and do not be afraid to admit you don’t know something, irrespective of the branch you work in: only then, can the cannabis community progress to the benefit of all.
The spectacular rise and crash of the Canadian cannabis stock market has been painful to watch, let alone to experience as an industry insider. The hype around the market has vanished and many investors are left disappointed. Large sustainable gains simply haven’t materialized as promised. The producers are clearly suffering. They have consistently been shedding value as they’ve been posting losses every quarter. Stock prices have plummeted along with consumer confidence. Attempts to reduce the cash bleeds through mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, restructures, fund raises, among others, have not resulted in any significant recovery. In short, the current model of a cannabis industry has failed.
How could it have been different? What should the industry have done differently? What makes the difference between failure and success? A recent article published in Nature (Volume 575) by Yin et al. titled “Quantifying the Dynamics of Failure Across Science, Startups and Security” analyzes the underlying principles of success. The article studies success rates of many groups after numerous attempts across three domains. One of the domains being analyzed are startup companies and their success in raising funds through many attempts at investment acquisition. The authors point out that the most important factor that determines success is not relentless trying but is actually learning after each attempt. Learning allows successful groups to accelerate their failures, making minute adjustments to their strategy with every attempt. Learning behavior is also seen early in the journey. This means that groups will show higher chances of success early on, if they learn from their mistakes.
If you want to succeed, you need to analyze the current state, test the future state, evaluate performance difference and implement the improved state.
This also needs to happen in the cannabis industry. Producers have been utilizing inefficient legacy systems for production. They have shackled themselves to these inefficient methods by becoming GMP-certified too early. Such certifications prevent them from experimenting with different designs that would enhance their process efficiency and product development. This inflexibility prevents them from improving. This means they are setting themselves up for ultimate failure. GMP is not generally wrong, as it ensures product safety and consistency. Although, at this early stage in the cannabis industry, we just don’t yet have the right processes to enshrine.
How can cannabis producers implement the above-mentioned research findings and learn from their current situation? In an ever-changing business environment, it is companies that are nimble, innovative and fast enough to continually refine themselves that end up succeeding. This agility allows them to match their products with the needs of their consumers and market dynamics. booking.com, a travel metasearch engine, is the prime example of this ethos because they carry out thousands of experiments per year. They have embraced failure through rapid experimentation of different offerings to gauge user feedback. Experimentation has allowed booking.com to learn faster than the competition and build a stronger business.
At CBDV, we put the need for iterative experimentation, failure and improvements to achieve breakthroughs at the core of our company. We pursue data to guide our decisions, not letting fear of momentary failure detract us from ultimate success. We continuously explore multiple facets of complex problems to come up with creative solutions.
A good example of how failure and rapid innovation guided us to success is our work on decarboxylation. We were confronted by the problem that the decarboxylation step of cannabis oil was inconsistent and unpredictable. Trying different reaction conditions did not yield a clear picture. We realized that the most important obstacle for improvements was the slow analysis by the HPLC. Therefore, we turned our attention to developing a fast analysis platform for decarboxylation. We found this in a desktop mid-IR instrument. With this instrument and our algorithm, we now could instantaneously track decarboxylation. We now hit another roadblock, a significant rate difference in decarboxylation between THCA and CBDA. We needed to understand the theoretical foundation of this effect to effectively optimize this reaction. So, we moved to tackle the problem from a different angle and employed computational chemistry to identify the origin of the rate difference. Understanding the steric effect on rate helped us focus on rapid, iterative experimentation. Now, with everything in place, we can control the decarboxylation at unrivaled speeds and to the highest precision.
If producers want to regain the trust of the market, they must embrace their failures and begin to learn. They should decrease their reliance on inefficient legacy production methods and experiment with new ones to find what is right for them. Experimentation brings new ways of production, innovative products and happier customers, which will result in higher profits. Producers should strive to implement experimentation into their corporate cultures. This can be done in collaboration with research companies like CBDV or through development of inhouse ‘centers of excellence.’
As mentioned in Part 1, the physiological effects of cannabis are mediated by a group of structurally related organic compounds known as cannabinoids. The cannabinoids are biosynthetically produced by a growing cannabis plant and Figure 1 details the biosynthetic pathways leading to some of the most important cannabinoids in plant material.
The analytical measurement of cannabinoids is important to ensure the safety and quality of cannabis as well as its extracts and edible formulations. Total cannabinoid levels can vary significantly between different cultivars and batches, from about 5% up to 20% or more by dry weight. Information on cannabinoid profiles can be used to tailor cultivars for specific effects and allows end users to select an appropriate dose.
Routine Analysisvs. Cannabinomics
Several structurally analogous groups of cannabinoids exist. In total, structures have been assigned for more than 70 unique phytocannabinoids as of 2005 and the burgeoning field of cannabinomics seeks to comprehensively measure these compounds.¹
Considering practical potency analysis, the vast majority of cannabinoid content is accounted for by 10-12 compounds. These include Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), Δ9-tetrahydrocannabivarian (THCV), cannabidivarin (CBDV) and their respective carboxylic acid forms. The cannabinoids occur primarily as carboxylic acids in plant material. Decarboxylation occurs when heat is applied through smoking, vaporization or cooking thereby producing neutral cannabinoids which are more physiologically active.
Potency Analysis by HPLC and GC
Currently, HPLC and GC are the two most commonly used techniques for potency analysis. In the case of GC, the heat used to vaporize the injected sample causes decarboxylation of the native cannabinoid acids. Derivatization of the acids may help reduce decarboxylation but overall this adds another layer of complexity to the analysis² ³. HPLC is the method of choice for direct analysis of cannabinoid profiles and this technique will be discussed further.
A sample preparation method consisting of grinding/homogenization and alcohol extraction is commonly used for cannabis flower and extracts. It has been shown to provide good recovery and precision² ³. An aliquot of the resulting extract can then be diluted with an HPLC compatible solvent such as 25% water / 75% acetonitrile with 0.1% formic acid. The cannabinoids are not particularly water soluble and can precipitate if the aqueous percentage is too high.
To avoid peak distortion and shifting retention times the diluent and initial mobile phase composition should be reasonably well matched. Another approach is to make a smaller injection (1-2 µL) of a more dissimilar solvent. The addition of formic acid or ammonium formate buffer acidifies the mobile phase and keeps the cannabinoid acids protonated.
The protonated acids are neutral and thus well retained on a C18 type column, even at higher (~50% or greater) concentrations of organic solvent² ³.
Detection is most often done using UV absorbance. Two main types of UV detectors are available for HPLC, single wavelength and diode array. A diode array detector (DAD) measures absorbance across a range of wavelengths producing a spectrum at each point in a chromatogram while single wavelength detectors only monitor absorbance at a single user selected wavelength. The DAD is more expensive, but very useful for detecting coelutions and interferences.
Chemical Constituents of Marijuana: The Complex Mixture of Natural Cannabinoids. Life Sciences, 78, (2005), pp. 539
Development and Validation of a Reliable and Robust Method for the Analysis of Cannabinoids and Terpenes in Cannabis. Journal of AOAC International, 98, (2015), pp. 1503
Innovative Development and Validation of an HPLC/DAD Method for the Qualitative and Quantitative Determination of Major Cannabinoids in Cannabis Plant Material. Journal of Chromatography B, 877, (2009), pp. 4115
Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer and partner at C4 Laboratories, is currently researching some of the lesser-known molecules in cannabis, and he’s on to something. His research focuses on discovering new molecules, determining their therapeutic effects and expanding our understanding of the constituents of cannabis.
Dr. Hildenbrand received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at El Paso where he researched the molecular architecture involved in hormone-dependent cancers. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, his post-doctoral research contributed to the development of a novel therapy for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a blood-borne cancer that afflicts small children. He has published over 25 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and hopes to do the same with his research in cannabis.
After a career of scientific consulting, Dr. Hildenbrand met Ryan Treacy, founder and chief executive officer of C4 Laboratories, in 2015 when Treacy launched the company. In June of 2015, the laboratory began operations, providing Dr. Hildenbrand the opportunity to embark on a new and exciting field of research- cannabis.
They currently collaborate with Dr. Kevin Schug of the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry (SCAAC) at the University of Texas, Arlington and together Drs. Schug and Hildenbrand are pursuing a DEA license to expand their current cannabis research. The SCAAC is a $10.0+ million analytical laboratory with instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world has access to.
C4 Laboratories, based in Mesa, Arizona, currently offers a range of services for cannabis analysis including terpene and cannabinoid analytics, microbial, pesticide, fungicide and insecticide testing. In addition to the standard gamut of tests, they also specialize in cultivation analytics like mold and mildew culture testing, viral detection with sentinel plants and comprehensive analysis of environmental conditions.
What makes their company unique is their multidisciplinary effort to characterize the therapeutic compounds found in cannabis, the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative. We sit down with Dr. Zac Hildenbrand to talk cannabis science, his research and what they hope to accomplish with the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative?
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand: The C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative is an open collaboration between growers and scientists to discover new molecules in cannabis and to have a better characterization of individual cannabis strains based on the active constituents found in each sample. We are facilitating the collaboration of some of the world’s best cannabis growers with world-class scientists to find new information about the plant.
What we want to accomplish in this work is identifying novel molecules. Because of the [federal government’s] restrictions in researching cannabis, there is very little peer-reviewed literature on many of the compounds found in cannabis. We want to secondarily find out what those molecules do in the human body and thus make recommendations for strains targeting specific conditions.
We also want to understand the strains currently out there by determining the most established cannabinoids and terpenes via chemotyping. You hear a lot of people talking about the effects of an Indica or Sativa and making recommendations based on that. We want to find chemical signatures based on cannabinoids and terpenes and make recommendations based on that. There are a lot of problems at hand when discussing strain names scientifically. There are nomenclature issues- people calling the same strain different names, people giving multiple names to the same strain to make it appear that their strain portfolios are more diverse.
We can identify the chemical signatures in strains based on the major cannabinoids and terpenes. Based on the terpenes and chemical profile we can determine more accurate recommendations for patients as well as in recreational applications. All of this, again, discovering the new molecules, identifying the current strains, is so we can make more informed decisions regarding cannabis use. It is not a panacea but it is a very robust plant. There are a lot of terpenes with anti-inflammatory responses. Other molecules help with blood flow, sleep, regulating blood glucose, and we all know the cases of CBD helping children with convulsions and epilepsy. We want people to make sure they have the most up-to-date information.
CIJ: How is your collaboration with the SCAAC at UT Arlington contributing to this work?
Dr. Hildenbrand: One of the instruments we use there is a supercritical-fluid-extraction supercritical-fluid-chromatography mass-spectrometer (SFE-SFC-MS). With that instrument, we can do the extraction on the machine with an extreme level of sensitivity. It is ideal for drug discovery and identifying molecules in the parts-per-quadrillion range. This particular instrument allows us to detect molecules with an extreme level of sensitivity without volatizing them during the sample extraction process.
We want to acquire samples of unique cannabis from growers that will work with us to discover new cannabis constituents. We are in the process of getting a DEA license so that we can send products across state lines to the center at UT Arlington to perform the advanced characterization. They have instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world have access to, which gives us the best opportunity to explore the unknown. When we discover new molecules, find out what they do on the molecular level, we can then isolate these compounds and ultimately use this newfound knowledge for the development of effective nutraceuticals.
CIJ: What molecules are you researching right now?
Dr. Hildenbrand: Some of the low-hanging fruit in our research looks at identifying compounds similar to the better-studied compounds such as THC and CBD. THCV has a very similar structure to THC, but has a shorter acyl carbon chain (3 carbons vs. 5).
THCV doesn’t induce a psychoactive response (like THC), but it does improve fat utilization, so it has remarkable potential for medicine. We are looking at what conditions are required for it to occur naturally. Cannabis doesn’t produce THCV in a high amount. 0.7% by weight is the most we have seen in Arizona. In Oregon, where craft cannabis has been refined to a much higher degree, we have heard rumblings of some strains containing up to 3% THCV. We want to find out if this is a possible weight loss tool. Our research in CBDV is very much the same.
CBL is the breakdown product of CBC when it is treated with ultraviolet light. We know absolutely nothing about what CBL does. If we find a strain that produces high amounts of CBC, we can then treat it with UV light and force the conversion to CBL, and then ultimately determine what it does. This is a good example of low-hanging fruit and the versatility of cannabis. Based on the biogenesis of the cannabinoids, we can alter the profile of cannabis products using a series of biochemical reactions.
For example, we have been helping clients in Arizona look for a quality sleep aid in cannabis. Certainly, Indica strains will help, but the molecule CBN helps specifically with sleep abnormalities. As CBN is formed as a byproduct when CBD or THC are oxidized, we see some producers using liquid nitrogen to oxidize CBD, leading to higher CBN levels. I would like to think we are in the age of understanding CBD, THC and the major terpenes,but there are a whole milieu of compounds that require our attention and THCV, CBDV and CBL are just a few that we want to devote our efforts to right away.
CIJ: What are your plans in the immediate future?
Dr. Hildenbrand: We are in the process of finalizing the documents to bring a C4 laboratory into Oregon where we can do quite a bit of research and where we’ll have access to some very unique cannabis. We will offer full compliance testing per ORELAP and OLCC regulations, but we also want to acquire samples (free of charge) from growers that want to collaborate with us to discover new molecules. We’ve been lucky enough to start working with growers like Adam Jacques and Chris West in Eugene, but we also want to be available to other growers who want to contribute to this research.
CIJ: What are your long-term goals with this project?
Dr. Hildenbrand: At a basic level, we hope to expand the current understanding of the cannabis plant. There is a lot of “bro science” and anecdotal claims out there. There is so much that we don’t know about cannabis that we cannot simply rely on anecdotal claims for each strain. We want to bring cannabis into the same light as any pharmaceutical-grade or biomedical research.
We need to be characterizing this plant with the same level of detail as other pertinent molecular therapies. In doing so there are a lot of potential discoveries to be made and we might be able to unlock the future of medicine. A drug like Marinol, for example, has been met with mixed reviews because its only one dimensional. Furthermore, we find that the terpene molecules are tremendously beneficial and this interplay between cannabinoids and terpenes is something that we want to explore further. All and all we wish to further illustrate the therapeutic capacities of cannabis within the contexts of specific ailments and medical conditions, while discovering the medicine of the future.
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