As of now, there are only two cannabis testing labs in Connecticut. Last year, regulators in the state approved a request from AltaSci Labs to raise the testing limits for yeast and mold at their lab from 10,000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g) up to 1 million. The other lab, Northeast Laboratories, has kept their limits at 10,000 cfu/g.
According to CTInsider.com, that request was approved privately and unannounced and patients were notified via email of the change. Ginny Monk at CTInsider says patients enrolled in Connecticut’s medical cannabis program have been outspoken over safety concerns, a lack of transparency and little voice in the decision-making process.
Following public outcry regarding the change at the recent Social Equity Council meeting, state regulators have proposed a change to microbial testing regulations. The new rule will set the limit at 100,000 cfu/g for yeast and mold and requires testing for specific forms of Aspergillus, a more harmful type of mold.
Kaitlyn Kraddelt, spokeswoman for Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, the agency in charge of testing regulations for the state’s cannabis program, told CTInsider.com that they involved several microbiologists to develop the new rule. “These new standards, which were drafted in consultation with several microbiologists, will prohibit specific types of yeast and mold in cannabis flower that may cause injury when inhaled and allow 10^5 cfu/g of colony forming units that have no demonstrated injurious impact on human health,” says Krasselt.
The rule change is now undergoing a public comment period, after which the Attorney General’s office will get a review period. If approved, it’ll head to the legislature, where a committee has 45 days to act on it.
Increasing cannabis use across the US has come with increased scrutiny of its health effects. Regulators and healthcare providers are not just concerned about the direct effects of inhaling or consuming cannabinoids, however, but also about another health risk: microbial contamination in cannabis products. Like any other crop, cannabis is susceptible to contamination by harmful pathogens at several points throughout the supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting to distribution. Many state regulators have set limits for microbial populations in cannabis products. Consequently, testing labs must adopt efficient screening protocols to help companies remain compliant and keep their customers safe.
Some of the pathogens common to cannabis flower include Aspergillus fungus species such as A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger and A. terreus. Cannabis might also harbor harmful E. coli and Salmonella species, including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Regulations vary by state, but most have set specific thresholds for how many colony forming units (CFUs) of particular species can be present in a sellable product.
Growers and testing labs need to develop a streamlined approach to remain viable. Current methods, including running cultures on every sample, can be expensive and time-consuming, but by introducing a PCR-based screening step first, which identifies the presence of microbial DNA – and therefore the potential for contamination – laboratories can reduce the number of cultures they need to run, saving money and time.
If contamination grows out of control, the pathogen can damage the cannabis plant itself and lead to financial losses. Aspergillus can also cause serious illness in consumers, especially those that are immunocompromised. If an immunocompromised person inhales Aspergillus, they can develop aspergillosis, a lung condition with a poor prognosis.
A Two-Step Screening Process
The gold standard method for detecting microbes is running cultures. This technique takes weeks to deliver results and can yield inaccurate CFU counts, making it difficult for growers to satisfy regulators and create a safe product in a timely manner. The use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can greatly shorten the time to results and increase sensitivity by determining whether the sample has target DNA.
Using PCR can be expensive, particularly to screen for multiple species at the same time, but a qPCR-based Aspergillus detection assay could lead to significant cost savings. Since the average presumptive positive rate for Aspergillus contamination is low (between 5-10%), this assay can be used to negatively screen large volumes of cannabis samples. It serves as an optional tool to further speciate only those samples that screened positive to comply with state regulations.
Overall, screening protocols have become a necessary part of cannabis production, and to reduce costs, testing labs must optimize methods to become as efficient as possible. With tools such as PCR technology and a method that allows for initial mass screening followed by speciation only when necessary, laboratories can release more samples faster with fewer unnecessary analyses and more success for cannabis producers in the marketplace.
bioMérieux, a leader in the in vitro diagnostics space and a supporter of the cannabis testing market, announced last month that they have achieved the first ever AOAC International approval for PCR Multiplex Detection of STEC and Salmonella in cannabis flower for their GENE-UP® PRO STEC/Salmonella Assay. The performance tested method approval for their new assay accomodates simultaneous enrichment and detection of STEC (Shiga Toxigenic Escherichia coli) and Salmonella spp. in cannabis samples.
The method is aimed at increasing efficiency in cannabis testing labs by reducing sample preparation time for microbiological testing. With the single enrichment and real-time multiplex PCR detection, bioMérieux says their new assay can provide reliable detection of STEC and Salmonella in 24 hours using just a single test.
PCR technology is one of the most widely utilized testing methods for detecting pathogens in a variety of matrices. bioMérieux claims it is easy to use, scientifically robust and reduces costs, time spent testing and errors.
Maria McIntyre, cannabis strategic operations business manager at bioMérieux, says that AOAC performance tested method approval is setting the bar for cannabis testing laboratories and furthering cannabis science. “AOAC International impacts cannabis science by setting analytical method standards that act as the benchmark for method validation,” says McIntyre. “This simplifies the validations needed by cannabis laboratories and assures the utmost confidence in product safety and human health.”
Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(es) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction and operation, as well as to guarantee safety of employees.
Materials of Construction
The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces22 provides a method for evaluating the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics, and other non-porous, surfaces of products (including intermediate products). Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Covering7, UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings 8, the International Building Code (IBC) 9, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility.
Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), compressed air and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection and sewage.
Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods and for cleaning activities. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter 1231, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes 2, provides extensive guidance on the design, operation, and monitoring of water systems. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Microbial monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 61, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests3and Chapter 62, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms 4, and chemical monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 643, Total Organic Carbon 5, and Chapter 645, Water Conductivity6.Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures and in wastewater treatment procedures A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.
Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.
Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow and air quality play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations as described in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification 26 are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.
Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications 21, separates air quality levels into classes to help differentiate air requirements based on facility type.
Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC) 12, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 13, National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 14, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 15 and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
Fire Detection and Suppression
“Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs.”Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Fire Code (IFC) 10, and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols27.
Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905 9. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems16 and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems 17 and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors18.
Product and Process Flow
Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are assessable with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials.
Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.
A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation and monitoring.
Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings and belts and the calibration of monitoring sensors.
In most medical cannabis markets, an established Security Program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. ASTM International standards: D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System 23, D8217 Guide for Access Control System, and D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS) 25 provide guidance on how to set up a suitable facility security system and program. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in an SOP per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.
The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors, if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize down time while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <1231>, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <61>, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <62>, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <643>, Total Organic Carbon.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <645>, Water Conductivity.
ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
International Building Code (IBC).
International Fire Code (IFC).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
National Electrical Code (NEC).
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
National Electrical Safety Code (NESC).
International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems.
UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems.
UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Good Practice Guide.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Guide Water and Steam Systems.
ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications.
ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces.
D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System.
D8217 Guide for Access Control Syst
D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS).
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA): Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification.
NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.
On August 11, PathogenDx announced that they received an AOAC Performance Tested Methods Certificate for their QuantX total yeast and mold test. Six days later, on August 17, Medicinal Genomics announced that AOAC approved their PathoSEEK 5-Color Aspergillus Multiplex Assays under the same AOAC Performance Tested Methods program.
Both assays are specifically designed with cannabis and hemp testing in mind and designed to expedite and simplify microbiological testing. PathogenDx’s QuantX quantifies the total amount of yeast and mold in a sample while also measuring against safety standards.
In addition to the total yeast and mold count test, PathogenDx has also introduced a 96-well plate, improved sample preparation and new data reporting with a custom reporting portal for compliance testing.
The Medicinal Genomics platform can detect four species, including A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus in both flower and infused edibles. The PathoSEEK microbial testing platform uses a PCR-based assay and provides an internal plant DNA control for every reaction.
This technique verifies the performance of the assay when detecting pathogens, allegedly minimizing false negative results commonly due to set up errors and experimental conditions.
AOAC International is a standards organization that works in the cannabis testing space through their CASP program to evaluate and approve standard testing methods for the industry.
In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.
PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.
We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).
Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?
Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.
We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.
Green: What year was that?
Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?
Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.
In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.
The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.
Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?
Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.
The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.
One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.
Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?
Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.
We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.
Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?
Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.
The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.
In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it. In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.
Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.
Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?
Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.
Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?
Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.
We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.
Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?
Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.
We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.
I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.
Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?
Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.
Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?
Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.
There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.
Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.
One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.
Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.
Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.
Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.
Testing cannabis and cannabis derived products for microbiological contamination should be a straightforward conversation for testing labs and producers. However, a patchwork of regulations and a wide variety of perspectives on what we should, or should not, be looking for has left much of the cannabis industry searching for reliable answers.
Organizations like the AOAC are taking the first crack at creating standardization in the field but there is still a long way to go. In this conversation, we would like to discuss the general requirements that almost all states share and where we see the industry headed as jurisdictions start to conform to the recommendations of national organizations like AOAC.
We sat down with Anna Klavins and Jessa Youngblood, two cannabis testing experts at Hardy Diagnostics, to get their thoughts on microbiology testing in the current state of the cannabis industry.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing cannabis testing labs when it comes to microbiology?
Anna Klavins & Jessa Youngblood:For microbiology testing, it comes down to a lack of standardization and approved methods for cannabis. In the US, cannabis regulation is written on a state-by-state level. As a result, the rules that govern every aspect of bringing these materials to market is as unique and varied as the jurisdiction writing them. When we are speaking specifically about microbiology, the question always comes back to yeast and mold testing. For some, the challenge will often be centered on the four main Aspergillus species of concern – A. terreus, A. niger, A. fumigatus, and A. flavus. For others, it will be the challenges of total count testing with yeast, mold, and bacteria. These issues become even more troublesome by the lack of recognized standard methodology. Typically, we expect the FDA, USP, or some other agency to provide the guidelines for industry – the rules that define what is safe for consumption. Without federal guidance, however, we are often in a situation where labs are required to figure out how to perform these tests on their own. This becomes a very real hurdle for many programs.
Q: Why is it important to use two different technologies to achieve confirmation?
Klavins & Youngblood: The push for this approach was borne out of the discussions happening within the industry. Scientists and specialists from across disciplines started getting together and creating groups to start to hash out problems which had arisen due to a lack of standardization. In regards to cannabis testing, implementing a single method for obtaining microbiology results could be unreliable. When clients compared results across labs, the inconsistencies became even more problematic and began to erode trust in the industry. As groups discussed the best way to prove the efficacy of their testing protocol, it quickly became apparent that relying on a single testing method was going to be inadequate. When labs use two different technologies for microbiology testing, they are able to eliminate the likelihood of false positives or false negatives, whichever the case may be. In essence, the cannabis testing laboratories would be best off looking into algorithms of detecting organisms of interest. This is the type of laboratory testing modeled in other industries and these models are starting make their way into the cannabis testing space. This approach is common in many food and pharma applications and makes sense for the fledgling cannabis market as well.
About Anna Klavins
Anna Klavins earned a Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S. degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo while playing for the Cal Poly Division I NCAA women’s tennis team. Since joining Hardy Diagnostics in mid-2016, she has gained experience in FDA submissions [510(k)] for class II microbiology in vitro devices. She has worked on 15 projects which led to a microbiology device becoming FDA cleared. She has recently begun participating in the AOAC Performance Tested Methods program.
About Jessa Youngblood
Jessa Youngblood is the Food, Beverage and Cannabis Market Coordinator for Hardy Diagnostics. A specialist in the field of cannabis microbiology for regulatory compliance, she is seated with the AOAC CASP committee working on standard methods for microbiological testing in cannabis and hemp. She also sits on the NCIA Scientific Advisory Council as well as the ASTM Cannabis Council.
According to a press release published earlier this month, the Bio-Rad iQ-Check Aspergilllus Real-Time PCR Detection Kit has received AOAC International approval. The test covers detection for four different Aspergillus species: A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus.
The detection kit covers those Aspergillus species for testing in cannabis flower and cannabis concentrates, produced with our without solvents. The PCR detection kit was validated through the AOAC Research Institute’s Performance Tested Method Program. They conducted a study that resulted in “no significant difference” between the PCR detection kit and the reference method.
The kit was evaluated on “robustness, product consistency, stability, inclusivity and exclusivity, and matrix studies,” the press release says. Bio-Rad also received approval and validation on the iQ-Check Free DNA Removal Solution, part of the workflow for testing cannabis flower.
The test kit uses gene amplification and real-time PCR detection. Following enrichment and DNA extraction, the test runs their PCR technology, then runs the CFX Manager IDE software to automatically generate and analyze results.
Bio’Rad has also recently received AOAC approval for other microbial testing methods in cannabis, including their iQ-Check Salmonella II, iQ-Check STEC VirX, and iQ-Check STEC SerO II PCR Detection Kits.
In a press release sent out this month, bioMérieux announced they have received the very first approvals in cannabis and hemp for AOAC Research Institute Performance Testing Methods (PTM). AOAC approved method validation for the detection of Salmonella and STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) in cannabis flower utilizing bioMérieux GENE- UP® SLM2 (PTM 121802) and EHEC (PTM 121806) assays.
According to the press release, these validations are the first of their kind in the cannabis and hemp industries. The AOAC-validated testing methods are approved for 1-gram and 10-gram samples.
Dr. Stan Bailey, senior director of scientific affairs at bioMérieux, says these approvals demonstrate the company’s commitment to innovative and validated science in the cannabis and hemp industries. “We are especially proud that the GENE-UP SLM2 and EHEC are the first two AOAC approvals in the United States for cannabis and hemp,” says Dr. Bailey. “This is increasingly important with now over half the population of the US living in states that have approved cannabis for recreational use and most states approving cannabis for medical use.”
The AOAC PTM designations are recognized by the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and global regulatory agencies. The validation guidance builds on AOAC’s Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP).
bioMérieux is a French in vitro diagnostics company that serves the global testing market. They provide diagnostic solutions such as systems, reagents, software and services.
The Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the Farm Bill, was signed into law in December 2018. A major provision in the law legalizes hemp as an industrial crop. In August of 2016, USDA, DEA, and FDA published a Statement of Principles in the Federal Register (FR 53365) that defined industrial hemp as any part or derivative (including seeds) of the plant Cannabis sativa L. with a dry weight concentration of tetrahydrocannabinols not greater than 0.3% (wt/wt).
Globally, the hemp market was estimated at $3.9 billion in 2017 and the hemp seed segment is predicted to grow “at a CAGR of 17.1%” through 2025. Some of the markets affected by hemp production include nutraceuticals, food, textiles, construction materials, and personal care products. It is also anticipated that cannabidiol (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid extracted from hemp) production will grow to support the burgeoning recreational and medicinal cannabis markets in the U.S., Canada and other countries around the world.
In U.S. states and Canada where recreational or medicinal marijuana programs have been legalized, regulations have been defined to assure the safety and quality of the products sold to consumers. These regulations include analytical chemistry and biological assays to identify and quantify pesticides, mycotoxins, heavy metals, residual manufacturing solvents, terpenes, and microbial contaminates. With regards to hemp, the USDA recently released guidelines for testing of hemp. To date, the only required test from the Federal perspective is total ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content < 0.3% by weight. Total THC is essentially the sum of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and THC (Total THC = 0.877(THCA) + THC) but this may be eventually expanded to include all salts and isomers of cannabinols as noted above. Another complication: what constitutes “dry”? The CFR does not answer this.
Agilent Technologies has invested in the development and implementation of the analytical protocol, the services needed to support these assays, the required consumables, reagents, and supplies, and the training of sales and support personnel to comprehensively ensure compliance of hemp with USDA regulations.
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