According to a press release published today, Emerald Scientific awarded PerkinElmer five badges for The Emerald Test, a bi-annual Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT) program. Awarding the badges for Perkin Elmer’s instruments and testing methods affirms their ability to accurately detect pesticides, heavy metals, residual solvents, terpenes and potency in cannabis.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager of Food, Chromatography & Mass Spectrometry, Discovery & Analytical Solutions at PerkinElmer, they are the only instrument manufacturer to receive all five accolades. “To date, PerkinElmer is the only solutions provider to successfully complete these five Emerald Scientific proficiency tests,” says Sears. “The badges underscore our instruments’ ability to help cannabis labs meet the highest standards available in the industry and effectively address their biggest pain point: Navigating diverse regulations without compromising turnaround time.”
The instruments used were PerkinElmer’s QSight 220 and 420 Triple Quad systems, which are originally designed for accurate and fast detection/identification of “pesticides, mycotoxins and emerging contaminants in complex food, cannabis and environmental samples,” reads the press release. They also used their ICP-MS, GC/MS and HPLC systems for the badges.
PerkinElmer says they developed a single LC/MS/MS method using their QSight Triple Quad systems, which helps labs test for pesticides and mycotoxins under strict regulations in states like California and Oregon. They performed studies that also confirm their instruments can help meet Canada’s testing requirements, which set action limits nearly 10 times lower than California, according to the press release.
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, Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, and Charles Deibel, President Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants resulting from human industrial activities such as mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants and farm/house hold water run-off. They affect the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals, pesticides and the sediments used to make fertilizers. They can also be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact. The inputs used by cultivators that can be contaminated with heavy metals include fertilizers, growing media, air, water and even the clone/plant itself.
The four heavy metals tested in the cannabis industry are lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) mandates heavy metals testing for all three categories of cannabis products (inhalable cannabis, inhalable cannabis products and other cannabis and cannabis products) starting December 31, 2018. On an ongoing basis, we recommend cultivators test for the regulated heavy metals in R&D samples any time there are changes in a growing process including changes to growing media, cannabis strains, a water system or source, packaging materials and fertilizers or pesticides. Cultivators should test the soil, nutrient medium, water and any new clones or plants for heavy metals. Pre-qualifying a new packaging material supplier or a water source prior to use is a proactive approach that could bypass issues with finished product.
The best approach to heavy metal detection is the use of an instrument called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). There are many other instruments that can test for heavy metals, but in order to achieve the very low detection limits imposed by most states including California, the detector must be the ICP-MS. Prior to detection using ICP-MS, cannabis and cannabis related products go through a sample preparation stage consisting of some form of digestion to completely break down the complex matrix and extract the heavy metals for analysis. This two-step process is relatively fast and can be done in a single day, however, the instruments used to perform the digestion are usually the limiting step as the digesters run in a batch of 8-16 samples over a 2-hour period.
Only trace amounts of heavy metals are allowed by California’s BCC in cannabis and cannabis products. A highly sensitive detection system finds these trace amounts and also allows troubleshooting when a product is found to be out of specification.
For example, during the course of testing, we have seen lead levels exceed the BCC’s allowable limit of 0.5 ppm in resin from plastic vape cartridges. An investigation determined that the plastic used to make the vape cartridge was the source of the excessive lead levels. Even if a concentrate passes the limits at the time of sampling, the concern is that over time, the lead leached from the plastic into the resin, increasing the concentration of heavy metals to unsafe levels.
Getting a Representative Sample
The ability to detect trace levels of heavy metals is based on the sample size and how well the sample represents the entire batch. The current California recommended amount of sample is 1 gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary but cannot be larger than 50 pounds of flower. There is no upper limit to the batch sizes for other inhalable cannabis products (Category II).
It is entirely likely that two different 1 gram samples of flower can have two different results for heavy metals because of how small a sample is collected compared to an entire batch. In addition, has the entire plant evenly collected and concentrated the heavy metals into every square inch of it’s leaves? No, probably not. In fact, preliminary research in leafy greens shows that heavy metals are not evenly distributed in a plant. Results from soil testing can also be inconsistent due to clumping or granularity. Heavy metals are not equally distributed within a lot of soil and the one small sample that is taken may not represent the entire batch. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample by collecting several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch, combining them, and taking a 1 g sample from this composite for analysis.
Linger, P. J. Mussig, H. Fischer, J. Kobert. 2002. Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: fibre quality and phytoremediation potential. Ind. Crops Prod. 11, 73–84.
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.”
Ultimately, the goal of any good company is to take care of their customers by providing a quality product at a competitive price. You take the time to use good practices in sourcing raw materials, processing, testing and packaging to make sure you have a great final product. Yet in practice, sometimes the product can degrade over time, or you find yourself facing costly manufacturing stoppages and repairs due to downed equipment or instrumentation. This can harm your company’s reputation and result in real, negative effects on your bottom line.
One thing you can do to prevent this problem is to have a properly scaled calibration and maintenance program for your organization.
First, a short discussion of terms:
Calibration, in the context of this article, refers to the comparison of the unit under test (your equipment) to a standard value that is known to be accurate. Equipment readings often drift over time due to various reasons and may also be affected by damage to the equipment. Periodic calibration allows the user to determine if the unit under test (UUT) is sufficiently accurate to continue using it. In some cases, the UUT may require adjustment or may not be adjustable and should no longer be used.
Maintenance, in the context of this article, refers to work performed to maximize the performance of equipment and support a long life span for the equipment. This may include lubrication, adjustments, replacement of worn parts, etc. This is intended to extend the usable life of the equipment and the consistency of the quality of the work performed by the equipment.
There are several elements to putting together such a program that can help you to direct your resources where they will have the greatest benefit. The following are some key ingredients for a solid program:
Keep it Simple: The key is to scale it to your operation. Focus on the most important items if resources are strained. A simple program that is followed and that you can defend is much better than a program where you can never catch up.
Written Program: Your calibration and maintenance programs should be written and they should be approved by quality assurance (QA). Any program should include the following:
Equipment Assessment and Identification: Assess each piece of equipment or instrument to determine if it is important enough to be calibrated and/or requires maintenance. You will probably find much of your instrumentation is not used for a critical purpose and can be designated as non-calibrated. Each item should have an ID assigned to allow tracking of the maintenance and/or calibration status.
Scheduling System: There needs to be some way to schedule when equipment is due for calibration or maintenance. This way it is easy to stay on top of it. A good scheduling system will pay for itself over time and be easy to use and maintain. A web-based system is a good choice for small to mid-sized companies.
Calibration Tolerance Assignment: If you decide to calibrate an instrument, consider what kind of accuracy you actually need from the equipment/instrument. This is a separate discussion on its own, but common rule of thumb is that the instrument should be at least 4 times more accurate than your specification. For very important instruments, it may require spending the money to get a better device.
Calibration and Maintenance Interval Assignments: Consider what interval you are going to perform maintenance for each equipment item. Manufacturer recommendations are based on certain conditions. If you use the equipment more or less often than “normal” use, consider adjusting the interval between calibrations or maintenance.
OOT Management: If you do get an Out of Tolerance (OOT) result during a calibration and you find that the instrument isn’t as accurate as you need. Congratulations! You just kept it from getting worse. Review the history and see if this may have had an effect since the last passing calibration, adjust or replace the instrument, take any other necessary corrective actions, and keep it up.
Training: Make sure personnel that use the equipment are trained on its use and not to use equipment that is not calibrated for critical measurements. Also, anyone performing calibration and/or maintenance should be qualified to do so. It is best to put a program in place as soon as you start acquiring significant equipment so that you can keep things running smoothly, avoid costly repairs and quality control problems. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming equipment will keep running just because it has run flawlessly for months or years. There are many bad results that can come of mismanaged calibration and/or maintenance including the following:
Unscheduled Downtime/Damage/Repairs: A critical piece of equipment goes down. Production stops, and you are forced to schedule repairs as soon as possible. You pay premium prices for parts and labor, because it is an urgent need. Some parts may have long lead times, or not be available. You may suffer reputational costs with customers waiting for delivery. Some calibration issues could potentially affect operator safety as well.
Out of Specification Product: Quality control may indicate that product is not maintaining its historically high quality. If you have no calibration and maintenance program in place, tracking down the problem is even more difficult because you don’t have confidence in the readings that may be indicating that there is a problem.
Root Cause Analysis: Suppose you find product that is out of specification and you are trying to determine the cause. If there is no calibration and maintenance program in place, it is far more difficult to pinpoint changes that may have affected your production system. This can cause a very significant impact on your ability to correct the problem and regain your historical quality standards of production.
A solid calibration and maintenance program can go a long way to keeping your production lines and quality testing “boring”, without any surprises or suspense, and can allow you to put more sophisticated quality control systems in place. Alternatively, an inappropriate system can bog you down with paperwork, delays, unpredictable performance, and a host of other problems. Take care of your equipment and relax, knowing your customers will be happy with the consistent quality that they have become accustomed to.
By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, Dr. Kevin A. Schug No Comments
Much has been made about the plummeting market value of cannabis grown outdoors in Oregon. This certainly isn’t a reflection of the product quality within the marketplace, but more closely attributable to the oversaturation of producers in this space. This phenomenon has similarities to that of ‘Tulip Mania’ within the Dutch Golden Age, whereby tulip bulbs were highly coveted assets one day, and almost worthless the next. During times like these, it is very easy for industry professionals to become disheartened; however, from a scientific perspective, this current era in Oregon represents a tremendous opportunity for discovery and fundamental research.
As we have mentioned in previous presentations and commentaries, our research group is interested in exploring the breadth of chemical constituents expressed in cannabis to discover novel molecules, to ultimately develop targeted therapies for a wide range of illnesses. Intrinsically, this research has significant societal implications, in addition to the potential financial benefits that can result from scientific discovery and the development of intellectual property. While conducting our experiments out of Arlington, Texas, where the study of cannabis is highly restricted, we have resorted to the closet genetic relative of cannabis, hops (Humulus lupulus), as a surrogate model of many of our experiments (Leghissa et al., 2018a). In doing so, we have developed a number of unique methods for the characterization of various cannabinoids and their metabolites (Leghissa et al., 2018b; Leghissa et al., 2018c). These experiments have been interesting and insightful; however, they pale in comparison to the research that could be done if we had unimpeded access to diverse strains of cannabis, as are present in Oregon. For example, gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy (GC-VUV) is a relatively new tool that has recently been proven to be an analytical powerhouse for the differentiation of various classes of terpene molecules (Qiu et al., 2017). In Arlington, TX, we have three such GC-VUV instruments at our disposal, more than any other research institution in the world, but we do not have access to appropriate samples for application of this technology. Similarly, on-line supercritical fluid extraction – supercritical fluid chromatography – mass spectrometry (SFE-SFC-MS) is another capability currently almost unique to our research group. Such an instrument exhibits extreme sensitivity, supports in situ extraction and analysis, and has a wide application range for potential determination of terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides and other chemical compounds of interest on a single analytical platform. Efforts are needed to explore the power and use of this technology, but they are impeded based on current regulations.
Circling back, let’s consider the opportunities that lie within the abundance of available outdoor-grown cannabis in Oregon. Cannabis is extremely responsive to environmental conditions (i.e., lighting, water quality, nutrients, exposure to pest, etc.) with respect to cannabinoid and terpene expression. As such, outdoor-grown cannabis, despite the reduced market value, is incredibly unique from indoor-grown cannabis in terms of the spectrum of light to which it is exposed. Indoor lighting technologies have come a long way; full-spectrum LED systems can closely emulate the spectral distribution of photon usage in plants, also known as the McCree curve. Nonetheless, this is emulation and nothing is ever quite like the real thing (i.e., the Sun). This is to say that indoor lighting can certainly produce highly potent cannabis, which exhibits an incredibly robust cannabinoid/terpene profile; however, one also has to imagine that such lighting technologies are still missing numerous spectral wavelengths that, in a nascent field of study, could be triggering the expression of unknown molecules with unknown physiological functions in the human body. Herein lies the opportunity. If we can tap into the inherently collaborative nature of the cannabis industry, we can start analyzing unique plants, having been grown in unique environments, using unique instruments in a facilitative setting, to ultimately discover the medicine of the future. Who is with us?
Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Foss FW, Schug KA. Determination of cannabinoids from a surrogate hops matrix using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography with triple quadrupole mass spectrometry. J Sep Sci 2018a; 41: 459-468.
Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Determination of the metabolites of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography – triple quadrapole – mass spectrometry. Separation Science Plus 2018b; 1: 43-47.
Leghissa A, Smuts J, Changling Q, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Detection of cannabinoids and cannabinoid metabolites using gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. Separation Science Plus 2018c; 1: 37-42.
Qiu C, Smuts J, Schug KA. Analysis of terpenes and turpentines using gas chromatography with vacuum ultraviolet detection. J Sep Sci 2017; 40: 869-877.
In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry.
In the third part of this series, we sit down with Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., to talk method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited. In the final part of this series, we are going to sit down with Susan Audino, an instructor at A2LA to learn more about the requirements where she’ll offer some advice for labs seeking accreditation.
Michael DeGregorio is a doctor of pharmacy with an extensive career in medicine and scientific research. He’s worked in cancer research and medicine, teaching at the University of California, San Francisco, Yale University School of Medicine, University of Texas, Health Science Center at San Antonio and University of California, Davis. Before becoming the CEO of Konocti Analytics, a laboratory based in California, DeGregorio was also a published author in a large number of peer-reviewed medical journals.
In this piece, we sit down with DeGregorio to find out what challenges labs face when getting accredited, why they sought accreditation and their experience with getting off the ground. Stay tuned for the final part of this series!
CannabisIndustryJournal: How does a laboratory go about choosing an appropriate method in an industry where, generally, there are no validated methods available?
Michael DeGregorio: Our approach to developing analytical methods for testing cannabis began with a review of the existing laboratories and their methods, where we found no standardization and inconsistent results. Since cannabis is being used by the public and as a medicine, our goal is to help make it as contaminant-free as possible for the well-being of the consumer, and this begins by developing a state-of-the-art analytical facility.
When developing new methods, we review the published literature to see what has already been done and try to arrive at a scientifically sound consensus. We then perform experiments to determine which set of conditions works best for us. Once we have developed an appropriate method, we validate it pursuant to ISO/IEC 17025 requirements.
CIJ: How do you go about choosing what type of equipment to use for testing (e.g. by limit of detection, acceptable method use of equipment for other industries, etc.)?
Michael: After reviewing the operations of other testing laboratories, we concluded that, in general, they were not taking advantage of the most advanced technologies and had limited personnel qualified to operate it. Because public safety is our main concern, we chose state-of-the-art equipment, including GC/LC-MS with Orbitrap and ICP-MS, for testing medicinal cannabis. In addition to identifying unknown pesticides, we needed the capability of performing full chemical screening of all samples for potentially harmful compounds, e.g. steroids, present in cannabis, as well as the ability to detect trace levels of metals.
Our greatest concern is the fact that pesticides in cannabis have not been adequately studied. Current pesticide regulations suggest that government authorities believe that there are a finite number of pesticides available. Smart farmers could easily avoid the pesticides on current lists. Because of this, we chose to validate our pesticide methods with a focus on chemical classes, as opposed to specific pesticides, to give us the broadest possible coverage of potential compounds. The Orbitrap mass spectrometers also allow us to detect and identify unknown pesticides. This is something not currently being done by other laboratories. The latest microbiology methods for cannabis testing include DNA analysis, and for this we use qRT-PCR technology. Finally, the high sensitivity of ICP-MS allows for the detection of metals concentrations that may be harmful, yet undetectable by other means.
CIJ: What do you feel are the benefits of being accredited?
Michael: Being accredited shows the public that we have made a commitment to quality analytics. We feel this gives our clients peace of mind when marketing their products, knowing that they have been tested by a laboratory meeting the highest international standards of operation available using the latest technology. Furthermore, being accredited requires participation in ongoing proficiency testing programs, which helps maintain analytical competency. It should be pointed out that any prospective client of an analytical facility should take into account the laboratory’s full accredited scope of testing to ensure its competency.
CIJ: What challenges did you face during the process of getting your laboratory started and/or during the accreditation process?
Michael: Developing the quality management system and getting our equipment and processes to a state where they met accreditation requirements took several months of hard work, and turned out to be a bit more daunting than we anticipated. Our pre-accreditation assessment revealed that much work remained to be done, and it gave us a real appreciation for the level of detail and documentation required. We remained determined and eventually achieved our accreditation.
CIJ: What are the benefits to the grower and dispensaries to choosing an accredited laboratory for the testing of their product?
Michael: By choosing an accredited laboratory with a full scope of testing (potency, pesticides, mycotoxins, metals, microbiology, residual solvents and terpenes), growers and dispensaries can rest assured that their products have been tested using validated methods with appropriate quality control by trained, competent personnel. For growers, this makes their products more attractive to potential buyers. For dispensaries, this means they can confidently market their products with the knowledge that the information shown on the label is accurate, which in turn gives their customers peace of mind that the product they are consuming does not contain unacceptable levels of contaminants.
CIJ: Why did you choose A2LA?
Michael: Once we decided to pursue accreditation, we researched the various accrediting bodies available as well as their reputations. We discovered that while all accrediting bodies are themselves accredited to the same standard, accreditation by the various bodies was not considered equal in practice. In our opinion, A2LA was considered the most prestigious, highly regarded accrediting body. Furthermore, some of the most prestigious laboratories in the country are accredited by A2LA, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Agriculture. Many of our preferred sources of scientific supplies and services are accredited by A2LA as well. As our goal was to be accredited by the best available accrediting body, we chose A2LA.
Yesterday, Shimadzu announced the formation of a partnership with Cure Pharmaceutical Group and CK Sciences to research and develop pharmaceutical cannabis-based products, according to a press release. The three organizations entered a collaborative agreement with the goal of researching and developing products, then moving them through clinical trials using FDA guidelines.
According to the press release, the partnership’s primary goal will be researching and profiling the synergistic effects of the cannabinoids and terpenes, called the “Entourage Effect.”
Shimadzu, a well-know analytical instrument manufacturer, has been making a name for itself in the scientific cannabis space with a number of exciting new ventures. They have worked extensively with cannabis laboratories throughout the country in refining methods and improving analytical chemistry in the space. For example, Shimadzu powers EVIO Labs Florida with over $1.2 million in the latest testing instrumentation.
Tracy Ryan, chief executive officer and founder of CK Sciences, says outfitting their lab for pharmaceutical research was a big priority for starting their venture. “When we met with Shimadzu, and we saw their passion for our mission, we knew we were in incredible hands! When analyzing cannabis everything has to be so precise,” says Ryan. “With Shimadzu’s platforms and team of brilliant scientists supporting our efforts, we have already set ourselves up for success.”
Back in March, Shimadzu launched their Cannabis Analyzer for Potency, a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) designed specifically for quantitative determination of cannabinoid content. The organizations in the partnership will be using that instrument, in addition to a headspace Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) for terpene profiling. Both Cure and CK will use the instruments to generate data, with the goal to validate cannabis as a viable pharmaceutical treatment, according to the press release.
Bob Clifford, Ph.D., general manager of marketing for Shimadzu, says they are excited to work with the organizations. “The emerging pharmaceutical cannabis market requires dedicated, thoughtful leaders eager to showcase the pharmaceutical benefits of cannabis on a scientific level,” says Clifford. “The Cure/CK Sciences group has continuously demonstrated such a leadership commitment, and we’re excited about the opportunities this agreement provides.”
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.
Currently, there are no lab testing regulations for Florida’s medical cannabis market. Chris Martinez, co-founder and chief operating officer of EVIO Labs Florida, a veteran-owned business, is looking to change that.
When Martinez co-founded EVIO Labs Florida, he saw the need for a dedicated cannabis lab to ensure safety and quality of medicine for patients in the state. Partnering with EVIO Labs to accomplish this goal, Martinez secured a 5,500 sq. ft. facility in Broward County to test for potency, pesticides, microbial contaminants, terpenes, residual solvents and heavy metals. Their lab, a first of its kind in the industry, qualifies as a true pharmaceutical-grade clean room. This week, Martinez also secured their 2nd laboratory location in the City of Gainsville, where they will test for potency, microbials, terpenes and residual solvents. And he isn’t doing it on the cheap. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez.
Martinez, an entrepreneur at heart, started the lab with a team of experts to become the first completely cannabis-focused laboratory in Florida. Jorge Segredo, their head chemist and quality assurance director, has over 18 years of experience in the development of nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products under ISO and FDA accreditation. Segredo has helped launch three independent FDA-accredited laboratories and has extensive knowledge of HPLC, GCMS, LCMS, ICPMS technologies and development/validation of testing methods and procedures. Cynthia Brewer, their director of operations, was an active participant in the 2017 state legislative session and has been an advocate for medical cannabis, working with legislators on a suitable framework to increase patient access to cannabis.
EVIO is one of the nation’s leaders in cannabis testing, research science and advisory services. It is an evolving network of laboratories with nine EVIO cannabis laboratories operating in five different states: Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and California. “After speaking with industry chemists around the country for months, the EVIO name was constantly brought up in conversation,” says Martinez. “When we spoke with the EVIO Team it was an easy decision for us to partner.” He says Lori Glauser, chief operating officer of EVIO, and William Waldrop, chief executive officer of EVIO, are truly visionaries in the cannabis industry.
According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
In addition to testing cannabis for safety and quality, they are launching a technology platform called MJ Buddy, essentially a software tool that takes efficacy feedback from patients and uses testing and genetic data they gather from EVIO Labs across the country. “This will provide real data to the cannabis industry as to the medical benefits for thousands of patients in relation to the genotype and cannabinoid profiles of their medicine,” says Martinez.
Of the states that have legalized some form of cannabis, a large number of them have some lab testing regulations on the book, with some more comprehensive than others. Martinez says he hopes the Florida Department of Health, Office of Medical Marijuana Use follows some of the more thorough state programs, such as Oregon. His team has compiled a set of documents for regulators with recommendations for regulating the lab testing industry.
Without any regulations on paper, it is up to businesses to produce safe and quality medicine, without any oversight. EVIO Labs Florida follows FDA Good Laboratory Practices, has an ISO 17025:2005 accreditation pending, and is working on TNI 2016 accreditation.
When discussing what he wants to see happen with Florida’s regulatory framework, Martinez says the rules need to be specific to Florida. For example, due to the climate being so humid, microbial contaminant testing for things like yeast and mold will be particularly imperative. Because processing methods like butane and alcohol extraction are legal, he emphasizes the need for comprehensive residual solvents testing. “The most important regulation would be to have the laboratories select the samples at the MMTC facility and have the state randomly verify laboratory results to ensure accurate unbiased testing,” says Martinez.
In addition to that, he hopes their pesticide thresholds will be realistic and based on actual science. “We believe the public should receive carcinogenic data for products that are inhaled,” says Martinez. “Chemicals may be introduced into the processing of cannabis to vape liquid that may cause harm. This is important information for public health and communication of the risk related to exposure to such materials.” Martinez says EVIO Labs Florida was founded on the belief that through technology and science we can increase safety and patient outcomes.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants often resulting from mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants, amount other sources. Several remediation strategies exist that are common for the reduction/elimination of metals in the environment. Phytoremediation is one method for removing metals from soil, utilizing plants to uptake metals which then bioaccumulate in the plant matter. In one study, cesium concentrations were found to be 8,000 times greater in the plant roots compared to the surrounding water in the soil. In 1998, cannabis was specifically tested at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site for its ability to remediate the contaminated soil. These examples demonstrate that cannabis must be carefully cultivated to avoid the uptake of toxic metals. Possible sources would not only include the growing environment, but also materials such as fertilizers. Many states publish metal content in fertilizer products allowing growers to select the cleanest product for their plants. For cannabis plant material and concentrates several states have specific limits for cadmium (Cd), Lead (Pb), Arsenic (As) and Mercury (Hg), based on absolute limits in product or daily dosage by body weight.
Analytical Approaches to Metals Determination
Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (Flame AA) and Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (GFAA) are both techniques that determine both the identity and quantity of specific elements. For both of these techniques, the absorption in intensity of a specific light source is measured following the atomization of the sample digestate using either a flame or an electrically heated graphite tube. Reference standards are analyzed prior to the samples in order to develop a calibration that relates the concentration of each element relative to its absorbance. For these two techniques, each element is often determined individually, and the light source, most commonly a hollow cathode lamp (HLC) or electrodeless discharge lamp (EDL) are specific for each element. The two most common types of Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (AES) are; Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES) and ICP-Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). Both of these techniques use an argon plasma for atomization of the sample digestates. This argon plasma is maintained using a radio frequency generator that is capable of atomization and excitation of the majority of the elements on the periodic table. Due to the considerably higher energy of the plasma-based instruments, they are more capable than the flame or furnace based systems for measurement of a wide range of elements. Additionally, they are based on optical emission, or mass spectrometric detection, and are capable of analysis of all elements at essentially the same time.
Flame AA is easy to use, inexpensive and can provide reasonable throughput for a limited number of elements. However, changes to light sources and optical method parameters are necessary when determining different metals. GFAA is also limited by similar needs to change the light sources, though it is capable of greater sensitivity for most elements as compared to flame AA. Runtimes are on the order of three minutes per element for each sample, which can result in lower laboratory throughput and greater sample digestate consumption. While the sensitivity of the absorption techniques is reasonable, the dynamic range can be more limited requiring re-analyses and dilutions to get the sample within the calibration range. ICP-OES allows the simultaneous analysis of over 70 elements in approximately a minute per sample with a much greater linear dynamic range. ICP-OES instruments cost about 2-5 times more than AA instruments. ICP-MS generally has the greatest sensitivity (sub-parts-per-trillion, for some elements) with the ability to determine over 70 elements per minute. Operator complexity, instrument expense and MS stability, as well as cost are some of the disadvantages. The US FDA has a single laboratory validated method for ICP-MS for elements in food using microwave assisted digestion, and New York State recently released a method for the analysis of metals in medical cannabis products by ICP-MS (NYS DOH LINC-250).
The use of fertilizers, and other materials, with low metal content is one step necessary to providing a safe product and maintaining customer confidence. The state-by-state cannabis regulations will continue to evolve which will require instrumentation that is flexible enough to quickly accommodate added metals to the regulatory lists, lower detection limits while adding a high level of confidence in the data.
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