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.’
Emerald Scientific now offers their customers PerkinElmer products, like their QSight® 420 Triple Quad system LC/MS, the Titan MPS™ Microwave Sample Preparation System, the Clarus® SQ 8 Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) and the Flexar™ High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) system. This partnership also allows Emerald Scientific customers to utilize the PerkinElmer analytical methods and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for cannabis and hemp testing. That includes SOPs for things like sample preparation, acquisition methods and consumable use. They’ll also be able to shop for lab products like PerkinElmer’s chromatography columns, vials and sample prep products.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager, Food and Organic Mass Spectrometry at PerkinElmer, the cannabis testing market is exploding and this will help labs get their equipment and necessities all in the same place. “With the cannabis and hemp markets continuing to grow rapidly and regulations strengthening, labs increasingly need streamlined access to best-in-class, user-friendly testing solutions geared toward the unique requirements of the industry,” says Sears. ““This collaboration with Emerald Scientific brings together leading cannabis analysis offerings in one place to help labs start up and expand more efficiently. In addition, we can build on the work we have done with Emerald around testing standardization which is important for the science of the industry.”
Kirsten Blake, Vice President of Emerald Scientific, says they are really excited about the partnership. “As regulations become more challenging, laboratory competition intensifies, and the science of the industry receives increasing focus, it is essential to align with organizations dedicated to improving both the quality and throughput of analytics,” says Blake. “After working with PerkinElmer to inform, educate, and advance the cannabis science industry around best practices, we see them as the industry leader for providing analytical instrumentation, methods and SOP’s. By adding their complementary solutions to our existing portfolio, we can now deliver complete packaged analytical solutions to the cannabis and hemp industries.”
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus, Technical Services Analyst, Dr. Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, Andy Sechler, Lab Director, Toby Astill, Senior Business Development Leader at Perkin Elmer and Charles Deibel, President of Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Pesticides represent the leading cause of batch failures in the cannabis industry. They are also the hardest tests to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are HPLC and GC dual mass spectrometer detectors, called “HPLC-qqq”, “GC-qqq,” or just triple quads.
As non-lab people, we envision a laboratory that can take a cannabis sample, inject it into a triple quad and have the machine quickly and effortlessly print out a report of pesticide values. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The process is much more hands on and complex.In the current chemistry lab, trained analysts have to first program the triple quads to look for the pesticides of concern; in cannabis pesticide testing, this is done by programming the first of two mass spectrometers to identify a single (precursor) mass that is characteristic of the pesticide in question. For BCC requirements in California, this has to be done for all 66 pesticides, one at a time.
Next, these precursor ions are degraded into secondary chemicals called the “product” ions, also called transition ions. The second of the two mass spectrometers is used to analyze these transition ions. This process is graphed and the resulting spectrum is analyzed by trained chemists in the lab, pesticide by pesticide, for all the samples processed that day. If the lab analyzes 10 samples, that translates to 660 spectra to analyze (66 pesticides x 10 samples). When looking at the spectra for each pesticide, the analysts must compare the ratios of the precursor ions to the product ions.
If these spectra indicate a given pesticide may be present, the chemists must then compare the ratios between the precursor and the products. If these ratios are not what is expected, then the analyst must perform confirmation testing to prove the precursor mass either is or is not the pesticide of concern. If the ratios are not what is expected, it means the molecule is similar to the pesticide in question, but may not be that pesticide. This confirmatory testing is key to producing accurate results and not failing batches when dealing with closely related chemicals. This process of analyzing spectra is done in all labs that are performing pesticide testing. In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods.
The need for this type of confirmation testing doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does, it will take longer than our targeted three-day turn-around time. In the picture above, one precursor mass is ionized into several product masses; but only two are large enough to be used for comparison. In this hypothetical situation, two product masses are produced for every one precursor, the expected ion abundance ratio should be less than 30%. When performing any confirmatory testing, if the ion abundance ratio is >30%, it means the original precursor molecule was not the pesticide of concern. For example, if the ion abundance ratio was 50%, then the original molecule broke down into too many parts; it was not the pesticide we were looking for. This ion abundance ratio threshold was established by FANCO, the international organization that sets guidelines for all pesticide testing.
Methodology: In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. The identification of the precursor mass and product ions are not always published, leaving labs to research which ions should be used. This adds to the potential for differences between lab results. Once selected, labs should validate their research, through a series of experiments to ensure the correct precursor and transition (product) ions are being used in the method.
Sample Preparation: Beyond the time-consuming work that is required to develop sound pesticide methods, the extraction step is absolutely critical for credible results. If the pesticides aren’t fully extracted from the cannabis product, then the results will be lower than expected. Sample preparations are often not standardized between labs, so unless a given extraction technique is validated for accuracy, there is the possibility for differences between labs.
Getting a Representative Sample
The current California recommended amount of sample is one gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary greatly and it is entirely likely that two different one gram samples can have two different results for pesticides. Has the entire plant been evenly coated with exactly the same amount of pesticide onto every square inch of its leaves? No, probably not. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample, by taking several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch.
Sampling Plans: We can learn a lot from the manufacturing and sampling best practices developed by the food industry through the years. If a food manufacturer is concerned with the possibility of having a bacteria pathogen, like Salmonella, in their finished product, they test the samples coming off their production lines at a statistically relevant level. This practice (theory) is called the sampling plan and it can easily be adapted to the cannabis industry. The basic premise is that the more you test, the higher your likelihood of catching a contaminate. Envision a rectangular swimming pool, but instead of water, it’s filled with jello. In this gelatinous small pool, 100 pennies are suspended at varying levels. The pennies represent the contaminates.
Is the pool homogenized? Is jello evenly represented in the entire pool? Yes.
Is your concentrate evenly distributed in the extraction vessel? Yes. The question is, where are the pennies in that extraction vessel? The heavy metals, the microbial impurities and the pesticides should be evenly distributed in the extraction vessel but they may not be evenly represented in each sample that is collected. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the manufacturing industry and it’s the unfortunate reality in the food industry. If you take one random cup of jello, will you find the penny? Probably not. But it you take numerous 1 cup samples from random areas within the batch, you increase your chances of finding the contaminate. This is the best approach for sampling any cannabis product.
The best way to approve a batch of cannabis product is to take several random samples and composite them. But you may need to run several samples from this composite to truly understand what is in the batch. In the swimming pool example, if you take one teaspoon scoop, will you find one of the pennies? The best way to find one of the pennies is to take numerous random samples, composite them and increase the number of tests you perform at the lab. This should be done on any new vendor/cultivator you work with, in order to help establish the safety of the product.
Fast-forward almost a year and EVIO Labs Florida is continuing their expansion in the state, now with locations in Broward County and Gainesville. “We are always looking at opportunities to better serve our clients and the patients of Florida,” says Martinez. “Opening Gainesville within a year of Davie was a goal we set for our team. We knew there was a need and opening Gainesville helped support the continued growth of FL medical marijuana program.” He says that between the two locations, they can now process upwards of 1,400 samples a day.
According to Martinez, much of that expanded throughput is thanks to their partnership with Shimadzu. “Our relationship with Shimadzu is very unique,” says Martinez. “Shimadzu instrumentation allows us to test in parts per billion for accuracy and sensitivity levels that empower us to see deep into the chemical makeup of these medicines. Operating in this space where speed and turnaround times are key, these instruments provide us with a platform to meet 24/48-hour deadlines.” They can now screen for contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, residual solvents, mycotoxins, aflatoxins and pathogens using instruments such as HPLC, GC-MS/MS, LC-MS/MS and ICP-MS, all provided by Shimadzu.
While Florida doesn’t currently have a final rule on testing thresholds, there are proposed regulations that would require independent lab testing for medical cannabis products. “Our clients are self-regulating at this time and in favor of the current proposed regulation,” says Martinez. “The proposed regulations will give Florida the most comprehensive and stringent testing regulation in the U.S. and arguably the world.”
For Martinez and the rest of the EVIO Labs Florida team, this is about protecting public health. “Our lab’s main focus is always first and foremost patient safety,” says Martinez. “As the market continues to grow, we continue to innovate through business intelligence software and other technologies to streamline the testing process for our customer’s.”
CBC, a cannabinoid typically seen in hemp and CBD-rich plants, has been linked to some potentially impactful medical applications, much like the findings regarding the benefits of CBD. The module that tests for it, along with terpenes and degraded THC, can be added to the LightLab without any changes to hardware or sample preparation.
According to Dylan Wilks, chief technology officer of Orange Photonics, this could be a particularly useful tool for distillate producers looking for extra quality controls. Cannabis distillates are some of the most prized cannabis products around, but the heat used to create them can also create undesirable compounds,” says Wilks. “Distillate producers can see potency drop more than 25% if their process isn’t optimized”. With this new Terpenes+ Module, a distillate producer could quantify degraded THC content and get an accurate reading for their QC/QA department.
We spoke with Stephanie McArdle, president of Orange Photonics, to learn more about their instruments designed for quality assurance for growers and extractors alike.
According to McArdle, this could help cultivators and processors understand and value their product when terpene-rich products are the end goal. “Rather than try to duplicate the laboratory analysis, which would require expensive equipment and difficult sample preparation, we took a different approach. We report all terpenes as a single total terpene number,” says McArdle. “The analyzer only looks for monoterpenes (some common monoterpenes are myrcene, limonene and alpha-pinene), and not sesquiterpenes (the other major group of cannabis terpenes, such as Beta- Caryophyllene and Humulene) so the analysis is semi-quantitative. What we do is measure the monoterpenes and make an assumption that the sesquiterpenes are similar to an average cannabis plant to calculate a total terpene content.” She says because roughly 80% of terpenes found in cannabis are monoterpenes, this should produce accurate results, though some exotic strains may not result in accurate terpene content using this method.
As growers look to make their product unique in a highly competitive market, many are looking at terpenes as a source of differentiation. There are a variety of areas where growers can target higher terpene production, McArdle says. “During production, a grower may want to select plants for growing based on terpene content, or adjust nutrient levels, lighting, etc. to maximize terpenes,” says McArdle. “During the curing process, adjusting the environmental conditions to maximize terpene content is highly desirable.” Terpenes are also beginning to get recognized for their potential medical and therapeutic values as well, notably as an essential piece in the Entourage Effect. “Ultimately, it comes down to economics – terpene rich products have a higher market value,” says McArdle. “If you’re the grower, you want to prove that your product is superior. If you’re the buyer, you want to ensure the product you buy is high quality before processing it into other products. In both cases, knowing the terpene content is critical to ensuring you’re maximizing profits.”
Orange Photonics’ LightLab operates very similarly to instruments you might find in a cannabis laboratory. Many cannabis testing labs use High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to analyze hemp or cannabis samples. “The primary difference between LightLab and an HPLC is that we operate at lower pressures and rely on spectroscopy more heavily than a typical HPLC analysis does,” says McArdle. “Like an HPLC, LightLab pushes an extracted cannabis sample through a column. The column separates the cannabinoids in the sample by slowing down cannabinoids by different amounts based on their affinity to the column.” McArdle says this is what allows each cannabinoid to exit the column at a different time. “For example, CBD may exit the column first, then D9THC and so on,” says McArdle. “Once the column separates the cannabinoids, they are quantified using optical spectroscopy- basically we are using light to do the final quantification.”
Imagine this: you are taking medication for cancer pain. One day, it works perfectly. The next, you feel no relief. On some days, you need to take three doses just to get the same effect as one. Your doctor can’t be completely positive how much active ingredient each dose contains, so you decide for yourself how much medication to take.
Doesn’t seem safe, right? It is crucial that doctors know exactly what they are prescribing to their patients. They must know that their patients are receiving the exact same dose of medication in their prescription each time they take it, and that their medication contains only the intended ingredients.
consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.In the cannabis industry, lack of certainty on these important factors is a major problem for drug manufacturers as they attempt to incorporate cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in cannabis that has no psychoactive effects but many medical benefits, into pharmaceutical drugs.
When using these compounds as medications, purity is essential. Cannabis contains a wide variety of compounds. Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known compound and its main psychoactive one1. Safety regulations dictate that consumers know exactly what they are getting when they take a medication. For example, their CBD-based medications should not contain traces of THC.
The cannabis industry greatly needs a tool to ensure the consistent extraction and isolation of compounds. In 2017, the cannabis industry was worth nearly $10 billion, and it is expected to grow $57 billion more in the next decade2. As legalization of medical cannabis expands, interest in CBD pharmaceuticals is likely to grow.
If compounds such as CBD are going to be used in pharmaceutical drugs, consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound that makes up 40 percent of cannabis extracts1. It is great for medical applications because it does not interfere with motor or psychological function. Researchers have found it particularly effective for managing cancer pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and specific forms of epilepsy3.
Other compounds derived from cannabis, such as cannabichromene (CBC) and cannabigerol (CBG), may also be beneficial compounds with medical applications. CBC is known to block pain and inflammation, and CBG is known for its use as a potential anti-cancer agent1.
Along with these compounds that provide medical benefits, there are psychoactive compounds that are used recreationally, such as THC.
“It will definitely be an advantage to have cannabis-based medications with clearly defined and constant contents of cannabinoids,” says Kirsten Müller-Vahl, a neurologist and psychiatrist at Hannover Medical School in Germany.
Creating a Standard Through Centrifugal Partition Chromatography
To obtain purified compounds from cannabis, researchers need to use technology that will extract the compounds from the plant.
Many manufacturers use some sort of chromatography technique to isolate compounds. Two popular methods are high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and flash chromatography. These methods have their places in the field, but they cannot be effectively and cost-efficiently scaled to isolate compounds. Instead, HPLC and flash chromatography may be better suited as analytical tools for studying the characteristics of the plant or extract. As cannabis has more than 400 chemical entities4, compound isolation is an important application.
This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery.Although molecules such as CBD can be synthesized in the lab, many companies would rather extract the compounds directly from the plant. Synthesized molecules do not result in a completely pure compound. The result, “is still a mixture of whatever cannabinoids are coming from a particular marijuana strain, which is highly variable,” says Brian Reid, chief scientific officer of ebbu, a company in Colorado that specializes in cannabis purification.
Currently, there is only one method available to researchers that completely allows them to isolate individual compounds: centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC).
The principle of CPC is similar to other liquid chromatography methods. It separates the chemical substances as the compounds in the mobile phase flow through and differentially interact with the stationary phase.
Where CPC and standard liquid chromatography differs is the nature of the stationary phase. In traditional chromatography methods, the stationary phase is made of silica or other solid particles, and the mobile phase is made of liquid. During CPC, the stationary phase is a liquid that is spun around or centrifuged to stay in place while the other liquid (mobile phase) moves through the disc. The two liquid phases, like oil and water, don’t mix. This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery. Chemists can isolate chemical components at 99 percent or higher purity with a 95 percent recovery rate5.
“CPC is ideal for ripping a single active ingredient out of a pretty complex mixture,” says Reid. “It’s the only chromatographic technique that does that well.”
The Need for Pure Compounds
High levels of purity and isolation are necessary for cannabis to be of true value in the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine relying on a medication to decrease your seizures, and it has a different effect every time. Sometimes there may be traces of psychoactive compounds. Sometimes there are too much or too little of the compound that halts your seizures. This is not a safe practice for consumers who rely on medications.“It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
Researchers working with cannabis desperately need a technology that can extract compounds with high purity rates. It is hard to run a study without knowing the precise amounts of compounds used. Reid uses a Gilson CPC 1000 system at ebbu for his cannabinoid research. With this technology, he can purify cannabinoids for his research and create reliable formulations. “Now that we have this methodology dialed in we can make various formulations —whether they’re water-soluble, sublingual, inhaled, you name it —with very precise ratios of cannabinoids and precise amounts of cannabinoids at the milligram level,” says Reid.
Kyle Geary, an internist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is currently running a placebo-controlled trial of CBD capsules for Crohn’s disease. This consistent isolation is helpful for his research, as well. “Ideally, the perfect study would use something that is 100 percent CBD,” says Geary. “It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
The State of the Industry
While CBD is not considered a safe drug compound under federal law in the United States6, 17 states have recently passed laws that allow people to consume CBD for medical reasons7. Half of medicinal CBD users solely use the substance for treatment, a recent survey found8. As the industry quickly grows, it is crucial that consumer safety protocol keeps pace.
In June, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug that contains a purified drug substance from cannabis, Epidiolex9. Made from CBD, it is designed to treat Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two rare forms of epilepsy. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the news release that although the FDA will work to support the development of high-quality cannabis-based products moving forward, “We are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
The industry should be prepared to implement protocols to ensure the quality of their CBD-based products. The FDA has issued warnings in recent years that some cannabinoid products it has tested do not contain the CBD levels their makers claim, and consumers should be wary of such products10. It’s hard to know when or if the FDA will begin regulating CBD-based pharmaceuticals. However, for pharma companies serious about their reputation, there is only one isolation method that creates reliable product quality: CPC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015, June 24). The Biology and Potential Therapeutic Effects of Cannabidiol. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/biology-potential-therapeutic-effects-cannabidiol
Atakan, Z. (2012). Cannabis, a complex plant: Different compounds and different effects on individuals. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology,2(6), 241-254. doi:10.1177/2045125312457586
Gilson. (n.d.). Centrifugal Partition Chromatography (CPC) Systems. Retrieved from http://www.gilson.com/en/AI/Products/80.320#.WzVB2lMvyMI
Mead, A. (2017). The legal status of cannabis (marijuana) and cannabidiol (CBD) under US law. Epilepsy & Behavior, 70, 288-291.
ProCon.org. (2018, May 8). 17 States with Laws Specifically about Legal Cannabidiol (CBD) – Medical Marijuana – ProCon.org. Retrieved from https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006473
Borchardt, D. (2017, August 03). Survey: Nearly Half Of People Who Use Cannabidiol Products Stop Taking Traditional Medicines. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/debraborchardt/2017/08/02/people-who-use-cannabis-cbd-products-stop-taking-traditional-medicines/#43889c942817
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2017). Public Health Focus – Warning Letters and Test Results for Cannabidiol-Related Products. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm484109.htm
Many physicians today treat their patients with cannabidiol (CBD, Figure 1), a cannabinoid found in cannabis. CBD is more efficacious over traditional medications, and unlike delta-9 tetrahydrocannbinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, CBD has no psychoactive effects. Researchers have found CBD to be an effective treatment for conditions such as cancer pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and Dravet Syndrome, a form of epilepsy.
Most manufacturers use chromatography techniques such as high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or flash chromatography to isolate compounds from natural product extracts. While these methods are effective for other applications, they are not, however, ideal for CBD isolate production. Crude cannabis oil contains some 400 potentially active compounds and requires pre-treatment prior to traditional chromatography purification. Both HPLC and flash chromatography also require silica resin, an expensive consumable that must be replaced once it is contaminated due to irreversible absorption of compounds from the cannabis extract. All of these factors limit the production capacity for CBD manufacturers.
Additionally, these chromatography methods use large quantities of solvents to elute natural compounds, which negatively impacts the environment.
A Superior Chromatography Method
Centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC) is an alternative chromatography method that can help commercial CBD manufacturers produce greater quantities of pure CBD more quickly and cleanly, using fewer materials and generating less toxic waste. CPC is a highly scalable CBD production process that is environmentally and economically sustainable.
The mechanics of a CPC run are analogous to the mechanics of a standard elution using a traditional chromatography column. While HPLC, for instance, involves eluting cannabis oil through a resin-packed chromatography column, CPC instead elutes the oil through a series of cells embedded into a stack of rotating disks. These cells contain a liquid stationary phase composed of a commonly used fluid such as water, methanol, or heptane, which is held in place by a centrifugal force. A liquid mobile phase migrates from cell to cell as the stacked disks spin. Compounds with greater affinity to the mobile phase are not retained by the stationary phase and pass through the column faster, whereas compounds with a greater affinity to the stationary phase are retained and pass through the column slower, thereby distributing themselves in separate cells (Figure 2).
A chemist can choose a biphasic solvent system that will optimize the separation of a target compound such as CBD to extract relatively pure CBD from a cannabis extract in one step. In one small-scale study, researchers injected five grams of crude cannabis oil low in CBD content into a CPC system and obtained 205 milligrams of over 95% pure CBD in 10 minutes.
The solvents used in chromatography, such as methanol and acetonitrile, are toxic to both humans and the environment. Many environmentally-conscious companies have attempted to replace these toxic solvents with greener alternatives, but these may come with drawbacks. The standard, toxic solvents are so common because they are integral for optimizing purity. Replacing a solvent with an alternative could, therefore, diminish purity and yield. Consequently, a chemist may need to perform additional steps to achieve the same quality and quantity achievable with a toxic solvent. This produces more waste, offsetting the original intent of using the green solvent.
CPC uses the same solvents as traditional chromatography, but it uses them in smaller quantities. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, these solvents can be reused. Hence, the method is effective, more environmentally-friendly, andeconomically feasible.
CPC’s Value in CBD Production
As manufacturers seek to produce larger quantities of pure CBD to meet the demand of patients and physicians, they will need to integrate CPC into their purification workflows. Since CPC produces a relativelyduct on a larger scale, it is equipped to handle the high-volume needs of a large manufacturer. Additionally, because it extracts more CBD from a given volume of raw cannabis extract, and does not use costly silica or require multiple replacement columns, CPC also makes the process of industrial-scale CBD production economically sustainable. Since it also uses significantly less solvent than traditional chromatography, CPC makes it financially feasible to make the process of producing CBD more environmentally-friendly.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
As the cannabis marketplace evolves, so does the technology. Cultivators are scaling up their production and commercial-scale operations are focusing more on quality. That greater attention to detail is leading growers, extractors and infused product manufacturers to use analytical chemistry as a quality control tool.
Previously, using analytical instrumentation, like mass spectrometry (MS) or gas chromatography (GC), required experience in the laboratory or with chromatography, a degree in chemistry or a deep understanding of analytical chemistry. This leaves the testing component to those that are competent enough and scientifically capable to use these complex instruments, like laboratory personnel, and that is still the case. As recent as less than two years ago, we began seeing instrument manufacturers making marketing claims that their instrument requires no experience in chromatography.
Instrument manufacturers are now competing in a new market: the instrument designed for quality assurance in the field. These instruments are more compact, lighter and easier to use than their counterparts in the lab. While they are no replacement for an accredited laboratory, manufacturers promise these instruments can give growers an accurate estimate for cannabinoid percentages. Let’s take a look at a few of these instruments designed and marketed for quality assurance in the field, specifically for cannabis producers.
Ellutia GC 200 Series
Ellutia is an instrument manufacturer from the UK. They design and produce a range of gas chromatographs, GC accessories, software and consumables, most of which are designed for use in a laboratory. Andrew James, marketing director at Ellutia, says their instrument targeting this segment was originally designed for educational purposes. “The GC is compact in size and lightweight in stature with a full range of detectors,” says James. “This means not only is it portable and easy to access but also easy to use, which is why it was initially intended for the education market.”
That original design for use in teaching, James says, is why cannabis producers might find it so user-friendly. “It offers equivalent performance to other GC’s meaning we can easily replace other GC’s performing the same analysis, but our customers can benefit from the lower space requirement, reduced energy bills, service costs and initial capital outlay,” says James. “This ensures the lowest possible cost of ownership, decreasing the cost per analysis and increasing profits on every sample analyzed.”
Shamanics, a cannabis oil extraction company based in Amsterdam, uses Ellutia’s 200 series for quality assurance in their products. According to Bart Roelfsema, co-founder of Shamanics, they have experienced a range of improvements in monitoring quality since they started using the 200 series. “It is very liberating to actually see what you are doing,” says Roelfsema. “If you are a grower, a manufacturer or a seller, it is always reassuring to see what you have and prove or improve on your quality.” Although testing isn’t commonplace in the Netherlands quite yet, the consumer demand is rising for tested products. “We also conduct terpene analysis and cannabinoid acid analysis,” says Roelfsema. “This is a very important aspect of the GC as now it is possible to methylate the sample and test for acids; and the 200 Series is very accurate, which is a huge benefit.” Roelfsema says being able to judge quality product and then relay that information to retail is helping them grow their business and stay ahead of the curve.
908 Devices G908 GC-HPMS
908 Devices, headquartered in Boston, is making a big splash in this new market with their modular G908 GC-HPMS. The company says they are “democratizing chemical analysis by way of mass spectrometry,” with their G908 device. That is a bold claim, but rather appropriate, given that MS used to be reserved strictly for the lab environment. According to Graham Shelver, Ph.D., commercial leader for Applied Markets at 908 Devices Inc., their company is making GC-HPMS readily available to users wanting to test cannabis products, who do not need to be trained analytical chemists.
Shelver says they have made the hardware modular, letting the user service the device themselves. This, accompanied by simplified software, means you don’t need a Ph.D. to use it. “The “analyzer in a box” design philosophy behind the G908 GC-HPMS and the accompanying JetStream software has been to make using the entire system as straightforward as possible so that routine tasks such as mass axis calibration are reduced to simple single actions and sample injection to results reporting becomes a single button software operation,” says Shelver.
He also says while it is designed for use in the field, laboratories also use it to meet higher-than-usual demand. Both RM3 Labs in Colorado, and ProVerde in Massachusetts, use G908. “RM3’s main goal with the G908 is increased throughput and ProVerde has found it useful in adding an orthogonal and very rapid technique (GC-HPMS) to their suite of cannabis testing instruments,” says Shelver.
Orange Photonics LightLab Cannabis Analyzer
Dylan Wilks, a third generation spectroscopist, launched Orange Photonics with his team to produce analytical tools that are easy to use and can make data accessible where it has been historically absent, such as onsite testing within the cannabis space. According to Stephanie McArdle, president of Orange Photonics, the LightLab Cannabis Analyzer is based on the same principles as HPLC technology, combining liquid chromatography with spectroscopy. Unlike an HPLC however, LightLab is rugged, portable and they claim you do not need to be a chemist to use it.
“LightLab was developed to deliver accurate repeatable results for six primary cannabinoids, D9THC, THC-A, CBD, CBD-A, CBG-A and CBN,” says McArdle. “The sample prep is straightforward: Prepare a homogenous, representative sample, place a measured portion in the provided vial, introduce extraction solvent, input the sample into LightLab and eight minutes later you will have your potency information.” She says their goal is to ensure producers can get lab-grade results.
McArdle also says the device is designed to test a wide range of samples, allowing growers, processors and infused product manufacturers to use it for quality assurance. “Extracts manufacturers use LightLab to limit loss- they accurately value trim purchases on the spot, they test throughout their extraction process including tests on spent material (raffinate) and of course the final product,” says McArdle. “Edibles manufacturers test the potency of their raw ingredients and check batch dosing. Cultivators use LightLab for strain selection, maturation monitoring, harvesting at peak and tinkering.”
Orange Photonics’ instrument also connects to devices via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. McArdle says cannabis companies throughout the supply chain use it. “We aren’t trying to replace lab testing, but anyone making a cannabis product is shooting in the dark if they don’t have access to real time data about potency,” says McArdle.
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