For me, the opioid epidemic was never a theoretical crisis. The mounting lives lost to overdoses weren’t just numbers in news reports to me, but names. A high school lab partner, little league teammates, a cook at my first restaurant job and others in my hometown were lost to the epidemic. By the time I graduated high school, seven people in my life died due to complications arising from opioid use.
What’s not lost on me now, after earning my PhD in plant biochemistry and founding a startup focused on bringing consistency and scientific credibility to the cannabis industry, is how a stigma around medicinal cannabis seems like such a contributing factor in their deaths.
Cannabis, although fully illegal in only eight U.S. states, still qualifies as a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level, legally equivalent to LSD or heroin. Crystal methamphetamine and cocaine as Schedule 2 drugs have lower penalties and even have federally approved medical applications. This is where we’ve failed as a broader scientific community.
The reason is this: Medicinal cannabis produced from the same genetic replicates, but grown in separate locations, or even different seasons, will possess different bioactive compounds. In short, their effect on patients will be different depending on the various bioactive compounds produced by the plant. Prescription medications do not come with that major caveat.
There’s a quality assurance problem, compounded by a lack of science that’s been shackled by the criminalization of cannabis since 1937.
We do know that the primary benefits of cannabis are three-fold: First, there’s pain management, as 28 well conducted randomized clinical trials (RCTs) have documented that cannabinoid agents are effective analgesics for chronic pain. Second, while potentially psychologically addictive, so people may desire the “high” produced by cannabis, THC is not chemically addictive and does not create a biological desire for the drug, much like the craving induced by the absence of, say, cocaine or heroin has on regular users. And finally, patients cannot overdose.
As a scientific community, there are three things we need to start doing today to change the narrative around medicinal cannabis and help bring this safer alternative therapy to more people. We need to provide a larger body of evidence about the benefits. We need to drive increased consistency in cannabis products themselves. And we need to confront stigmas rooted in misinformation. The sooner we can succeed here, the sooner we can hope for a day when we see fewer devastating opioid overdoses and deaths.
I am driven by a vision for a future when people can have access to safe, trusted and consistent cannabis for their medical and recreational uses, and we as a society are able to fully realize the therapeutic benefits of this amazing plant. As scientists, my colleagues and I are committed to doing our part to bring the credibility and advancements that will help this vision become a reality.
Using tools rooted in science–including functional genomics and secondary metabolite pathway expression profiling–cultivators can learn to fully “know” the plants they grow and hone in on producing the same bioactive compounds and in the same ratios that show medicinal promise. Cultivators can learn the genetic effect that their facility has on their genetics and why those genetics lead to a different chemical profile when grown elsewhere. Together, we can identify the driving factors of what makes a variety help with whatever ailment you are trying to treat.
I’m buoyed by data that shows states that have legalized and provided access to recreational cannabis have between 20% and 35% fewer reported opioid deaths, and lower rates of opioid prescriptions. But more needs to be done. I plan to become a more vocal voice, advocate for sound science, consistency in medical cannabis and better access to natural plant-based medicines without the stigma of yesteryear.
The time has come for our policy makers to step up. We cannot afford to just be observers when the cost of remaining on the sideline is measured in lives.
“I really wanted an outlet for me, like someone like me, to be able to help out in this fight,” Wells said in a Harvard Crimson interview. “I knew I was, by far, not the only one who felt this way. And so what happened was, on the walk home from work that day from the lab, I thought, ‘Hey, I should try to organize something here in Boston so I could potentially be a part of a group that makes themselves available to health department officials or county officials.’”
Volunteers are made up of a mix of laboratory scientists, data scientists, software engineers, medical writers, CEOs and epidemiologists – from academic research institutes, national labs and private industry. Many state and local government agencies and organizations have already accessed the list for reference, including FEMA.
Members of the cannabis industry can help to combat COVID-19. “The cannabis industry relies on specialized laboratories that routinely perform qPCR-based microbial tests,” says Wells. “As a result, these labs have basic skill sets and facilities required to participate in community COVID-19 testing.” Quantitative Polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), is a common technique for determining if there are microbial contaminants in flower, concentrates and infused products.
Some cannabis industry leaders have already taken to the call. “With the trend in legalization, the cannabis industry has built an excess testing capacity in anticipation of an increase in volumes,” says David Winternheimer, PhD, CEO of Pacific Star Labs, a Los Angeles-based cannabis research organization with an ISO-accredited testing laboratory. “As an essential industry, cannabis companies are open to helping the wider population in a crisis like this, and testing could easily be adopted in labs with excess microbial testing capacity.”
Michael Wells and his band of volunteers are asking to help get the word out to other scientists who would like to sign-up at https://covid19sci.org and for anyone to help share the database link with any relevant person in government or health services. “Right now, it is all hands on deck. We need every lab, facility, and pair of skilled hands to be deployed in this fight against the most dangerous pathogen our species has experienced at this scale in our lifetimes.”
endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.
The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database is a database of over 8,000 scientists from all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam who are eager to volunteer our time, expertise, equipment, and consumables to help you respond to the COVID-19 crisis. They have aggregated our contact information, locations, and skills sets into this easy to use centralized database. Their members include experts in scientific testing, bioinformatics, and data management, as well as key contacts willing to donate lab space and testing supplies.
The spectacular rise and crash of the Canadian cannabis stock market has been painful to watch, let alone to experience as an industry insider. The hype around the market has vanished and many investors are left disappointed. Large sustainable gains simply haven’t materialized as promised. The producers are clearly suffering. They have consistently been shedding value as they’ve been posting losses every quarter. Stock prices have plummeted along with consumer confidence. Attempts to reduce the cash bleeds through mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, restructures, fund raises, among others, have not resulted in any significant recovery. In short, the current model of a cannabis industry has failed.
How could it have been different? What should the industry have done differently? What makes the difference between failure and success? A recent article published in Nature (Volume 575) by Yin et al. titled “Quantifying the Dynamics of Failure Across Science, Startups and Security” analyzes the underlying principles of success. The article studies success rates of many groups after numerous attempts across three domains. One of the domains being analyzed are startup companies and their success in raising funds through many attempts at investment acquisition. The authors point out that the most important factor that determines success is not relentless trying but is actually learning after each attempt. Learning allows successful groups to accelerate their failures, making minute adjustments to their strategy with every attempt. Learning behavior is also seen early in the journey. This means that groups will show higher chances of success early on, if they learn from their mistakes.
If you want to succeed, you need to analyze the current state, test the future state, evaluate performance difference and implement the improved state.
This also needs to happen in the cannabis industry. Producers have been utilizing inefficient legacy systems for production. They have shackled themselves to these inefficient methods by becoming GMP-certified too early. Such certifications prevent them from experimenting with different designs that would enhance their process efficiency and product development. This inflexibility prevents them from improving. This means they are setting themselves up for ultimate failure. GMP is not generally wrong, as it ensures product safety and consistency. Although, at this early stage in the cannabis industry, we just don’t yet have the right processes to enshrine.
How can cannabis producers implement the above-mentioned research findings and learn from their current situation? In an ever-changing business environment, it is companies that are nimble, innovative and fast enough to continually refine themselves that end up succeeding. This agility allows them to match their products with the needs of their consumers and market dynamics. booking.com, a travel metasearch engine, is the prime example of this ethos because they carry out thousands of experiments per year. They have embraced failure through rapid experimentation of different offerings to gauge user feedback. Experimentation has allowed booking.com to learn faster than the competition and build a stronger business.
At CBDV, we put the need for iterative experimentation, failure and improvements to achieve breakthroughs at the core of our company. We pursue data to guide our decisions, not letting fear of momentary failure detract us from ultimate success. We continuously explore multiple facets of complex problems to come up with creative solutions.
A good example of how failure and rapid innovation guided us to success is our work on decarboxylation. We were confronted by the problem that the decarboxylation step of cannabis oil was inconsistent and unpredictable. Trying different reaction conditions did not yield a clear picture. We realized that the most important obstacle for improvements was the slow analysis by the HPLC. Therefore, we turned our attention to developing a fast analysis platform for decarboxylation. We found this in a desktop mid-IR instrument. With this instrument and our algorithm, we now could instantaneously track decarboxylation. We now hit another roadblock, a significant rate difference in decarboxylation between THCA and CBDA. We needed to understand the theoretical foundation of this effect to effectively optimize this reaction. So, we moved to tackle the problem from a different angle and employed computational chemistry to identify the origin of the rate difference. Understanding the steric effect on rate helped us focus on rapid, iterative experimentation. Now, with everything in place, we can control the decarboxylation at unrivaled speeds and to the highest precision.
If producers want to regain the trust of the market, they must embrace their failures and begin to learn. They should decrease their reliance on inefficient legacy production methods and experiment with new ones to find what is right for them. Experimentation brings new ways of production, innovative products and happier customers, which will result in higher profits. Producers should strive to implement experimentation into their corporate cultures. This can be done in collaboration with research companies like CBDV or through development of inhouse ‘centers of excellence.’
Emerald Scientific now offers their customers PerkinElmer products, like their QSight® 420 Triple Quad system LC/MS, the Titan MPS™ Microwave Sample Preparation System, the Clarus® SQ 8 Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) and the Flexar™ High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) system. This partnership also allows Emerald Scientific customers to utilize the PerkinElmer analytical methods and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for cannabis and hemp testing. That includes SOPs for things like sample preparation, acquisition methods and consumable use. They’ll also be able to shop for lab products like PerkinElmer’s chromatography columns, vials and sample prep products.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager, Food and Organic Mass Spectrometry at PerkinElmer, the cannabis testing market is exploding and this will help labs get their equipment and necessities all in the same place. “With the cannabis and hemp markets continuing to grow rapidly and regulations strengthening, labs increasingly need streamlined access to best-in-class, user-friendly testing solutions geared toward the unique requirements of the industry,” says Sears. ““This collaboration with Emerald Scientific brings together leading cannabis analysis offerings in one place to help labs start up and expand more efficiently. In addition, we can build on the work we have done with Emerald around testing standardization which is important for the science of the industry.”
Kirsten Blake, Vice President of Emerald Scientific, says they are really excited about the partnership. “As regulations become more challenging, laboratory competition intensifies, and the science of the industry receives increasing focus, it is essential to align with organizations dedicated to improving both the quality and throughput of analytics,” says Blake. “After working with PerkinElmer to inform, educate, and advance the cannabis science industry around best practices, we see them as the industry leader for providing analytical instrumentation, methods and SOP’s. By adding their complementary solutions to our existing portfolio, we can now deliver complete packaged analytical solutions to the cannabis and hemp industries.”
Khiron Life Sciences Corp. has played an interesting game globally for some time now. Far from a “high flier” in the first tiers of Canadian cannabis companies to watch, that may be changing. Not to mention, this fall, what exactly do these labels mean right now as almost all the first movers retrench and reconsider?
How and where Khiron’s influence will be felt however, is still very much a question in the air.
The big news? The company has obtained authorization from the Colombian government to commercialize high-THC cannabis, and further, for both domestic and international consumption.
There are several interesting things about this announcement.
The first is that Khiron inevitably got its domestic license to supply a 15,000-patient trial “at home” in Columbia (and for the prestigious Latin American Institute of Neurology and the Nervous System).
The second is that the company will also be exporting – and to where.
Uruguay is at the top of that list – starting with the fact that the country has had a “recreational market” that actually predates Canada’s. To import medical cannabis here in other words, is also an interesting statement in and of itself. Namely, what is wrong with domestically produced Uruguayan product? Even and especially in this case, for the medical market? (The answer of course has more to do with U.S. banking law than product quality).
The second is the UK where the company will also supply the patient trial there – Project Twenty21. This is even more intriguing considering that the NHS has just denied the efficacy of cannabis for treating neurological conditions and pain and only recently agreed that Sativex was “cost effective” after negotiating a lower bulk price with GW Pharmaceuticals made possible by the new NICE guidelines.
The third is Brazil – a growingly valuable market now firmly on the radar of those watching all things cannabis-related in the hemisphere.
Regardless, it shows that the lights are on in the executive suite at Khiron. The question is, will this early mover advantage pay off – and more interestingly, where?
A Hemispheric Play – But In Which Long Term Direction?
While the UK at least seems to be Brexiting itself off a cliff of free trade agreements with the world (and expect cannabis to be in the early room of conversation about commodities in this regard), is Latin American cannabis really price impactful in low price per gram Europe long term? Especially given the inclinations of a company whose CEO admits in press statements that he wants to be a “Starbucks of Cannabis” – selling not coffee beans at “80 cents a pound…” but rather a cup of coffee “for four dollars.”
That is a still-to-be answered question. Especially in an environment where the German government has announced its essential reference wholesale price for floss at €2.30 per gram (around four dollars American). Not to mention what is going on domestically in countries across the continent from Denmark and Portugal to Poland.
However, what all this positioning also does of course, is pose questions for Khiron’s intentions throughout the American hemispheres, both more locally and of course north of the Rio Grande (in the U.S. market) not to mention Canada.
This is the kind of reverse hemisphere play of course that everyone in North America has been expecting since Uruguay’s early market movement earlier in the decade. The great South American fruit and veg market is finally allowed to turn to legal production in the form of cannabis.
Is the “Drug War” finally in its last, dying days? The answer appears to be yes. Trade wars, inevitably, however, are looming. Protectionism in the cannabis industry may be a new flavour of the day but not in any other agricultural or indeed any other kind of commodity. And on this front, things are also likely to be fierce.
According to a press release published back in September, Steep Hill announced their expansion to the state of Oklahoma. Steep Hill, a cannabis science company that started with cannabis testing labs in California, has been on an impressive expansion trajectory over the past few years.
Kandice Faulkenberry, co-owner and CEO of Steep Hill Oklahoma, says they hope to raise the bar for cannabis lab testing in Oklahoma. “With Oklahoma being one of the fastest-growing medical markets in the nation, we are excited and honored to be a part of our state’s growth,” says Faulkenberry. “We hope to be a valuable resource in our community and Oklahoma’s cannabis industry. Through our partnership with Steep Hill, the world’s leading cannabis science company, we aim to raise the bar in laboratory services, education, and product safety for the medical cannabis industry in the Sooner State.”
Dr. Chris Orendorff, the other co-owner of Steep Hill Oklahoma, is a family physician based in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. “As a physician, I understand that safety and regulations are critical to patient outcomes and I look forward to providing the same assurance for my patients and fellow Oklahoma residents in the cannabis industry,” says Dr. Orendorff. “I am excited to partner with Steep Hill to provide the highest quality testing in the State of Oklahoma.”
Project Yosemite, a cannabis product innovation and brand development company, announced earlier this month the appointment of Jennifer Raeder-Devens as their new Chief Scientific Officer. Raeder-Devens is a veteran of the MedTech industry, working for companies like Becton Dickinson, Cardinal Health, Medtronic and 3M.
Prior to joining Yosemite, she was the Vice President of Research & Development at Becton, Dickinson, where she oversaw product development and technology strategies to launch infection prevention products including the ChloraPrep first-in-the-US sterile solution patient preoperative topical antiseptic. She was previously the Vice President of R&D, Strategy and Innovation at Cardinal Health. She’s also held roles at Medtronic, 3M Drug Delivery Systems and 3M Skin Health Division and she has a number of patents in drug delivery and medical devices.
In November of 2018, Project Yosemite launched their first product, OLO, which is an infused, controlled-release sublingual strip. Part of Raeder-Devens’ new role at the company is the continued development and expansion of the OLO sublingual strip technology platform. Andrew Mack, CEO and founder of Project Yosemite, says he’s thrilled to have Raeder-Devens on the team. “Jennifer is an extremely accomplished scientist and engineer with extensive experience driving innovation and R&D in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries,” says Mack.
We caught up with Jennifer over the phone to talk about her background in the MedTech space, why she decided to jump ship to join the cannabis industry and what she’s excited to work on now.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Can you tell us about your background, including your work with 3M and Medtronic?
Jennifer Raeder-Devens: I’m coming directly from Becton Dickinson, a global med tech company, where I supervised the development of drug-device combination products for topical antiseptics. I spent about 10 years there, mostly in topical drug and combination product development. Prior to that, I was at 3M and Medtronic working in drug-device combination products. At 3M, I was supervising a team of technology developers for the 3M Drug Delivery Systems business. I had experience working with designing and manufacturing transdermal, nasal, buccal and inhalation drug delivery mechanisms for pharmaceutical partners.
I worked on implantable drug delivery systems at Medtronic, which included working on the biocompatibility of things like pacemakers and drug infusion pumps and optimizing them to reduce infection and enhance healing after the implantation procedure.
CIJ: What made you consider joining the cannabis industry?
Jennifer: With my work in topicals, transdermal and inhalation drug delivery, I had an easy understanding of the different routes of administration we see today in the cannabis industry. And so, from the technology standpoint, I thought this was a place I could contribute to immediately. And then what got me really excited about it was thinking about cannabis, and just like any other drug, with oral drug delivery, you’ve got first class metabolism and side effects from the 11-Hydroxy-THC that are undesirable and you’d rather not have delivered through the gut.
I got excited when I saw the development of things like sublingual strips that were focusing on alternatives to smoking that would preserve that relatively fast onset and mitigate some of the side effects of edibles.
The other thing I really like about the cannabis industry: Previously I have been very focused on known drugs that are already approved and repurposing them into a new delivery system. What really interests me about the cannabis industry is the active cannabinoids and terpenes are somewhat known and somewhat unknown, so there is this really interesting challenge there of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of producing therapeutic effects.
It is a really interesting space where the indications of certain molecules are evolving along with the delivery technology. So, it is a really exciting and eye-opening way to take the next step in my career and have this wide-open space in front of me, both in terms of the different cannabinoids, their effects and the delivery systems we can use.
CIJ: How might you be prepared, given your background, for some of the challenges in the cannabis space?
Jennifer: I think the challenges in cannabis delivery are not different from the challenges in pharmaceutical drug delivery. It’s just that we have this additional complexity of the entourage effect. We can be engineering not just the main ingredient of THC, but also all the other cannabinoids and terpenes. So, for example, with my background in infection prevention, we build a product that we know reduces the risk of infection, but we are really challenged to actually prove it reduces the risk of infection. We have a similar situation in the cannabis industry, where we can get the THC, or CBG or CBN where we want it to go, but then we are really challenged to figure out how we can find, what we call in the pharmaceutical industry, a surrogate end point for efficacy, so that we can test that product and really believe that when we put the product on the market, even though we haven’t tested thousands of users or conducted large randomized clinical trials, that the effect will be shown. We are networking and partnering with a good scientific community to build the right product and do some testing at a small scale that really demonstrates the product achieves the effect that we are really looking for.
CIJ: Can you tell us a little about your new role with Project Yosemite?
Jennifer: My job description falls into three buckets: The first part is that we are forming a scientific advisory board and we are working with some of the leading cannabinoid researchers around the country and around the world. These are the people identifying whether or not certain cannabinoids could reduce cancer cell metabolism or whether cannabinoids contribute to weight loss or diabetes control and other things of that nature. We are trying to reach as far upstream as we can to grasp the emerging understanding of the performance of cannabinoids and terpenes in the endocannabinoid system. So, part of my job is to chair that scientific advisory board, get the thought leaders together in the room and have them bring their knowledge and explore with our own knowledge what cannabis can really do.
I have worked in topical, transdermal, buccal, nasal, inhalation drug delivery. In the second bucket of my job, we are trying to understand a given indication or experience that our users want to have, what would be the right route for them. We are challenging our sublingual delivery mechanism to see how fast of an onset we can really get. Right now, we are at 10 minutes for drug delivery in sublingual and we are still trying to get an even faster onset time for the sublingual strip.
For other indications, like chronic pain, we may want to think about a sustained release, so sort of aligning the different indications with which different cannabinoids and terpenes will work for it and see which delivery platform will work for what we are trying to accomplish in each indication. So, we do not plan to remain solely a sublingual strip company, but will build out additional delivery platforms as we develop new indications.
Right now, we are working upstream with the growers and the processors to get cannabis oil and extracts. Some of the growers are working on different genetics in their cultivars to grow plants that have different ratios of different cannabinoids that we know from the emerging research will have an impact on people’s experience. Now we are working with growers to really get ahead of the curve on how to formulate products with various cannabinoids.
We have an R&D team in house that I supervise. We are always working with our production team to make small improvements such as the faster onset and the dissolution rate and things like flavors, which covers a downstream focus as well.
Back in August, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) announced the formation of a strategic partnership with Agilent Technologies to “facilitate education and research in cannabis chemistry and analysis.” The university formed the LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence (CoE), which is sponsored by Agilent. The facility, powered by top-of-the-line Agilent instrumentation, is designed for research and education in cannabis science, according to a press release.
The LSSU Cannabis CoE will help train undergraduate students in the field of cannabis science and analytical chemistry. “The focus of the new LSSU Cannabis CoE will be training undergraduate students as job-ready chemists, experienced in multi-million-dollar instrumentation and modern techniques,” reads the press release. “Students will be using Agilent’s preeminent scientific instruments in their coursework and in faculty-mentored undergraduate research.”
The facility has over $2 million dollars of Agilent instruments including their UHPLC-MS/MS, UHPLC-TOF, GC-MS/MS, LC-DAD, GC/MS, GC-FID/ECD, ICP-MS and MP-AES. Those instruments are housed in a 2600 square-foot facility in the Crawford Hall of Science. In February earlier this year, LSSU launched the very first program for undergraduate students focused completely on cannabis chemistry. With the new facility and all the technology that comes with it, they hope to develop a leading training center for chemists in the cannabis space.
Dr. Steve Johnson, Dean of the College of Science and the Environment at LSSU, says making this kind of instrumentation available to undergraduate studies is a game changer. “The LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence, Sponsored by Agilent was created to provide a platform for our students to be at the forefront of the cannabis analytics industry,” says Dr. Johnson. “The instrumentation available is rarely paralleled at other undergraduate institutions. The focus of the cannabis program is to provide our graduates with the analytical skills necessary to move successfully into the cannabis industry.”
Storm Shriver is the Laboratory Director at Unitech Laboratories, a cannabis testing lab in Michigan, and sounds eager to work with students in the program. “I was very excited to learn about your degree offerings as there is a definite shortage of chemists who have experience with data analysis and operation of the analytical equipment required for the analysis of cannabis,” says Shriver. “I am running into this now as I begin hiring and scouting for qualified individuals. I am definitely interested in a summer internship program with my laboratory.”
LSSU hopes the new facility and program will help lead the way for more innovation in cannabis science and research. For more information, visit LSSU.edu.
Jason Neely founded Stratos in 2014, when he and a small group of people left the pharmaceutical industry in search of a new endeavor in the cannabis marketplace. The concept was straightforward: Apply pharmaceutical methodologyof production to cannabis products. Back then, Stratos offered a range of THC-infused tabletsin the Colorado market.
Brenda Verghese, vice president of research & development, was one of five people on staff when Stratos launched. Now they have about 30 team members. Consumers were looking for a cannabis product that would be consistent and reliable every time, taking the guesswork out of infused products dosage. That’s where Brenda Verghese found her skillset useful.
Transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry right out of college, Verghese started her career as a chemist and worked her way up to the R&D business development sector. “I specializedin formulations and taking a product from concept to commercialization in the pharmaceutical space,” says Verghese. “Jason Neely approached me with the idea of a cannabis company and focusing on making products as effective and consistent as possible, so really bringing pharmaceutical science into the cannabis space. In the matter of 4 years we grew substantially, mainly focusing on the efficacy of products.”
Soon after the success of their THC products became apparent, Stratos launched a CBD line, quickly growing their portfolio to include things like tinctures and topicals as well. According to Verghese, they are hoping that what’s been established on the THC side of their business as far as reproducibility and consistency is something that consumers will also experience on the CBD side. “Quality and consistency have definitely driven our growth,” says Verghese. “That is what consumers appreciate most- the fact that every tablet, tincture or swipe of a topical product is going to be consistent and the same dose every time.” This is what speaks to their background in the pharmaceutical sciences, FDA regulation has taught the Stratos team to create really robust and consistent formulations.
Quality in manufacturing starts at the source for Stratos: their suppliers. They take a hard look at their supply of raw materials and active ingredients, making sure it meets their standards. “The supplier needs to allow us to do an initial audit and periodic audits,” says Verghese. “We require documentation to verify the purity and quality of oil. We also do internal testing upon receipt of the materials, verifying that the COAs [certificates of analysis] match their claims.”
Verghese says maintaining that attention to detail as their company grows is crucial. They implement robust SOPs and in-process quality checks in addition to process testing. They test their products 5-6 times within one production batch. Much of that is thanks to Amy Davison, director of operations and compliance, and her 15 years of experience in quality and regulatory compliance in the pharmaceutical industry.
Product testing alone cannot assess quality for an entire lot or batch of product; therefore, each step of the manufacturing process must be controlled through Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Process validation is an aspect of GMPs used by the pharmaceutical industry to create consistency in a product’s quality, safety and efficacy. There are three main stages to process validation: process design, process qualification and continued process verification. Implementing these stages ensures that quality, including dosing accuracy, is maintained for each manufactured batch of product.
Fast forward to today and Stratos is looking at expanding their CBD products line significantly. While their THC-infused products might have a stronger brand presence in Colorado, the CBD line offers substantial growth potential, given their ability to ship nationwide as well as online ordering. “We are always evaluating different markets and looking for what suits Stratos and our consumer base,”says Verghese.
AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.
In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.
Where It All Began With Cannabis
As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.
According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”
Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs
Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”
According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.
Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles
The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.
Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.
While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing
Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.
“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”
When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.
Food Authenticity & Fraud
One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.
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