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.
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.’
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