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.
I was wrong. And that’s a good thing! Based on all available data, I assumed that evaporating ethanol from a cannabis oil/ethanol solution would result in terpene loss. As it turns out, it doesn’t. There are so many beliefs and assumptions about cannabis: Cannabis cures cancer!1 Smoking cannabis causes cancer!2 Sativas help you sleep; Indicas make you creative!3,4 CBD is not psychoactive!5 But are these ‘facts’ backed by science? Have they been experimentally tested and validated?
I postulated a theory, designed experiments to validate it and evaluated the results. Simply putting “cannabis backed by science” on your label does not solve the problem. Science is not a marketing term. It’s not even a fixed term. The practice of science is multifaceted and sometimes confusing. It evolved from the traditional model of Inductivism, where observations are used in an iterative process to refine a law/theory that can generalize such observations.6 Closely related is Empiricism, which posits that knowledge can only come from observation. Rationalism, on the other hand, believes that certain truths can be directly grasped by one’s intellect.7 In the last century, the definition of science was changed from the method by which we study something, such as Inductivism or Rationalism, and refocused on the way we explain phenomena. It states that a theory should be considered scientific if, and only if, it is falsifiable.8 All that means is that not the way we study something is what makes it scientific, but the way we explain it.
I wonder how can we use empirical observations and rational deliberations to solve the questions surrounding cannabis? And more importantly, how can we form scientific theories that are falsifiable? Cannabis, the plant, the drug, has long been withheld from society by its legal status. As a result, much of what we know, in fact, the entire industry has thrived in the shadows away from rigorous research. It’s time for this to change. I am particularly concerned by the lack of fundamental research in the field. I am not even talking about large questions, like the potential medical benefit of the plant and its constituents. Those are for later. I’m talking about fundamental, mundane questions like how many lumens per square centimetre does the plant need for optimal THC production? What are the kinetics of cannabis extraction in different solvents? What are the thermodynamics of decarboxylation? Where do major cannabinoids differ or align in terms of water solubility and viscosity?
The lack of knowledge and data in the cannabis field puts us in the precarious position of potentially chasing the wrong goals, not to mention wasting enormous amounts of time and money. Here’s a recent example drawn from personal experience:Certainly, I cannot be the only one who has made an incorrect assumption based on anecdotes and incomplete data?
Some of the most common steps in cannabis oil production involve ethanol solutions. Ethanol is commonly removed from extraction material under reduced pressure and elevated heat in a rotary evaporator. I expected that this process would endanger the terpenes in the oil – a key component of product quality. My theory was that volatile terpenes9 would be lost in the rotary evaporator during ethanol10 removal. The close values of vapor pressure for terpenes and ethanol make this a reasonably assumed possibility.11 In the summer of 2018, I finally got the chance to test it. I designed experiments at different temperatures and pressures, neat and in solution, to quantify the terpene lost in ethanol evaporation. I also considered real life conditions and limitations of cannabis oil manufacturers. After all the experiments were done, the results unequivocally showed that terpenes do not evaporate in a rotary evaporator when ethanol is removed from cannabis extracts.12 As it turns out, I was wrong.
We, as an industry, need to start putting money and effort into fundamental cannabis research programs. But, at least I ran the experiments! I postulated a theory, designed experiments to validate it and evaluated the results. At this point, and only this point, can I conclude anything about my hypothesis, even if that is that my working theory needs to be revised. Certainly, I cannot be the only one who has made an incorrect assumption based on anecdotes and incomplete data?
There is a particular danger when using incomplete data to form conclusions. There are many striking examples in the medical literature and even the casual observer might know them. The case of hormone replacement therapy for menopause and the associated risks of cardiovascular diseases showed how observational studies and well-designed clinical trials can lead to contradicting results.13 In the thirties of the last century, lobotomy became a cure-all technique for mental health issues.14 Dr. Moniz even won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for it.15 And it must come as no surprise when WIRED states “that one generation’s Nobel Prize-winning cure is another generation’s worst nightmare.”16 And with today’s knowledge is impossible to consider mercury as a treatment for syphilis, but that is exactly what it was used as for many centuries.17 All those examples, but the last one in particular should “be a good example of the weight of tradition or habit in the medical practice, […] of the necessity and the difficulties to evaluate the treatments without error.”18 There is the danger that we as cannabis professionals fall into the same trap and believe the old stories and become dogmatic about cannabis’ potential.
We, as an industry, need to start putting money and effort into fundamental cannabis research programs. That might be by sponsoring academic research,19 building in-house research divisions,20 or even building research networks.21 I fully believe in the need for fundamental cannabis research, even the non-sexy aspects.22 Therefore, I set up just that: an independent research laboratory, focused on fundamental cannabis research where we can test our assumptions and validate our theories. Although, I alone cannot do it all. I likely will be wrong somewhere (again). So, please join me in this effort. Let’s make sure cannabis science progresses.
No, it does not. There are preliminary in-situ studies that point at anti-cancer effects, but its more complicated. The therapeutic effects of Cannabis and cannabinoids: An update from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, Abrams, Donald I., European Journal of Internal Medicine, Volume 49, 7 – 11
No, it does not. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24625.
No, it does not. The chemical profile of the plant dictates the biological effects on humans, not the shape of the leaf. Justin T. Fischedick, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Volume: 2 Issue 1: March 1, 2017
Indica and Sativa are outdated terms. Piomelli D, Russo EB. The Cannabis sativa versus Cannabis indica debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res 2016; 1: 44–46.
No, it is. CBD’s supposed “calming effects” is indeed a psychoactive effect. However, it is not intoxicating like THC. Russo E.B., Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.Br. J. Pharmacol. 2011; 163: 1344-1364
As attributed to Francis Bacon.
See the work by philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
As theorized by Karl Popper.
Monoterpenes have a vapor pressure in the low to mid hundreds of Pascals at room temperature.
Vapor pressure of 5.95 kPa at 20˚C.
Furthermore, there is always the possibility of azeotropes in complex mixtures. Azeotropes are mixtures of two or more liquids that have different boiling points individually, but in mixture boil together.
Terpene Retention via Rotary Evaporator Application Note, Heidolph North America
Last week, the 4th annual Emerald Conference brought attendees from around the world to San Diego for two days of education, networking and collaboration. Leading experts from across the industry shared some of the latest research in sessions and posters with over 600 attendees. The foremost companies in cannabis testing, research and extraction brought their teams to exhibit and share cutting edge technology solutions.
The diversity in research topics was immense. Speakers touched on all of the latest research trends, including tissue culture as a micropropagation technique, phenotype hunting, pharmaceutical product formulation, chromatography methods and manufacturing standards, to name a few.
On the first day of the event, Ken Snoke, president of Emerald Scientific, gave his opening remarks, highlighting the importance of data-driven decisions in our industry, and how those decisions provide the framework and foundation for sound progress. “But data also fuels discovery,” says Snoke, discussing his remarks from the event. “I told a story of my own experience in San Diego almost 30 years ago while working in biotech, and how data analysis in a relatively mundane and routine screening program led to discovery. And how we (the folks at Emerald) believe that when we get our attendees together, that the networking and science/data that comes from this conference will not only support data-driven decisions for the foundation of the industry, but it will also lead to discovery. And that’s why we do this,” Snoke added.
Snoke says the quality of the content at the poster session was phenomenal and engaging. “We had over 500 attendees so we continue to grow, but it’s not just about growth for us,” says Snoke. “It’s about the quality of the content, and providing a forum for networking around that content. I met a scientist that said this conference renewed his faith in our industry. So I firmly believe that the event has and will continue to have a profound and immensely positive impact on our industry.”
Introducing speakers as one of the chairs for first session focused on production, Dr. Markus Roggen says he found a number of speakers delivered fascinating talks. “This year’s lineup of presentations and posters really showcase how far the cannabis industry has come along,” says Dr. Roggen. “The presentations by Roger Little, PhD and Monica Vialpando, PhD, both showed how basic research and the transfer of knowledge from other industries can push cannabis science forward. Dr. Brian Rohrback’s presentation on the use of chemometrics in the production of pharmaceutical cannabis formulations was particular inspiring.”
Shortly after Snoke gave his opening remarks, Dr. Roggen introduced the first speaker, Roger Little, Ph.D., owner of CTA, LLC. He presented his research findings on phenotype hunting and breeding with the help of a cannabis-testing laboratory. He discussed his experience working with local breeders and growers in Northern California to identify high-potency plants early in their growth. “You can effectively screen juvenile plants to predict THC potency at harvest,” says Dr. Little. The other research he discussed included some interesting findings on the role of Methyl jasmonate as an immune-response trigger. “I was looking at terpenes in other plants and there is this chemical called methyl jasmonate,” says Dr. Little. “It is produced in large numbers of other plants and is an immune response stimulator. This is produced from anything trying to harm the plant such as a yeast infection or mites biting the stem.” Dr. Little says that the terpene has been used on strawberries to increase vitamin C content and on tobacco plants to increase nicotine content, among other uses. “It is a very potent and ubiquitous molecule,” says Dr. Little. “Cannabis plants’ immune-response is protecting the seeds with cannabinoid production. We can trick plants to think they are infected and thus produce more cannabinoids, stimulating them to produce their own jasmonate.”
Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, spoke about tissue culture as an effective micropropagation technique, providing attendees with a basic understanding of the science behind it, and giving some estimates for how it could effectively replace cloning and the use of mother plants. You could overhear attendees discussing her talk throughout the remainder of the show.
Dr. Jones has worked with CIJ on a series of articles to help explain cannabis tissue culture, which you can find here. “In this example, we started with one vessel with 4 explants,” says Dr. Jones. “Which when subcultured 4-6 weeks later, we now have 4 vessels with 16 plants.” She says this is instrumental in understanding how tissue culture micropropagation can help growers scale without the need for a ton of space and maintenance. From a single explant, you can potentially generate 70,000 plants after 48 weeks, according to Dr. Jones.
Those topics were just the first two of many presentations at Emerald Conference. You can take a look at some of the other presentation abstracts in the agenda here. The 5th Annual Emerald Conference in 2019 will be held February 28th through March 1st in San Diego next year.
Next Frontier Biosciences announced the launch of their new product line, Verra Wellness, in the Colorado market this week. The products are designed with relatively new concepts for the cannabis market, including nasal, sublingual and topical administration.
The company claims their product is the first-ever cannabis nasal mist. Co-founded by biotech executives Marc Graboyes and Dr. Paul Johnson, Ph.D, Next Frontier Biosciences is developing this product line with three formulations, each with a different ratio of THC and CBD. According to a press release, Next Frontier Biosciences is focused on developing cannabis products with these new drug delivery methods, and even offering a microdosing option.
“We believe that leveraging science and research is the key to optimizing product development,” says Dr. Johnson, one of the co-founders. “With the introduction of our Verra Wellness line of products, we are reshaping the cannabis industry by offering trusted products that provide uniform composition, formulation and dosing in highly consistent modes of administration.”
Their topical salves in the Verra Wellness product line are “designed to permeate skin and muscle tissue deeply without penetrating the blood stream or causing psychoactive effects,” reads a press release. In addition to the nasal mist and topical salve, they also launched a sublingual spray.
According to Marc Graboyes, chief executive officer and co-founder of Next Frontier Biosciences, drug delivery mechanisms like a nasal mist are superior to smoking, vaporizing and edible administration. “Nasal administration is among the most effective delivery technologies due to the extensive vascularization and large surface area of the nasal cavity, allowing for rapid uptake and reliable results,” says Graboyes. “The cannabis nasal mist is a novel technology that other brands have not yet tapped into.”
He says this drug delivery mechanism is efficient, fast acting and a healthy alternative to smoking. “For many, nasal delivery is a desirable alternative delivery mechanism because it does not present the health risks associated with smoking,” says Graboyes. “In addition, as previously mentioned, the large surface area of the nasal cavity permits high drug absorption, and the fine-mist sprayer allows for accurate, consistent dosing and an excellent safety profile. Further, nasal delivery avoids first-pass metabolism by the liver, where a large fraction of orally delivered cannabinoids are inactivated.”
While the Verra Wellness product line is available in Colorado starting this week, the company has plans to expand into a number of other states as well. “We are executing a multi-state expansion, with plans to move into the California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada markets in the coming year,” says Graboyes.
Marijuana. Mary Jane. Pot. Reefer. Ganja. Weed. Joint. Grass.
The variety of terms used to describe cannabis are as diverse as the potentials of the plant itself – as well as the opinions of its proper nomenclature. A quick web search came up with a number of articles about how we should refer to cannabis, and opinions can be just as annoying and stinging as mosquitoes in the Everglades at the peak of season. Each of these words has an origin with which, having all the facts, you might not choose to align yourself. Words matter, and whether born from racism, xenophobia, or just plain ignorance, one will never go wrong following one simple piece of advice: “Never use a word or a phrase unless you know its meaning.” That said, it is not my intention here to add another opinion, but rather to present the topic from a different vantage. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it is worth your while to learn what you are saying, and in so doing, empower yourself to consider your audience as you consider your slang, just as you would with any other word.
The legalized cannabis industry has opened a plethora of professional opportunities. Thoughtfully considered, these opportunities can lead to new heights of professional accomplishment and financial earning capability. For those with the good fortune to have such opportunity in legalized cannabis, congratulations! You are a member of a very small group of pioneers who have the potential to shape an entire industry (remember that what Henry Ford did by creating the assembly line brought benefit, not just to the automotive industry, but to all industry.)
In this industry we are not just creating medical cannabis dispensaries, cultivation and processing facilities, we are creating new ideas and platforms for compliance, security, financial planning, quality assurance, botany, agriculture, sustainability, packaging, retail, inventory control, human capital – the list is as endless as the imagination – with the potential to influence capacity in every aspect of all types of industry, around the world. In the course of your career as a cannabis professional you will have a chance to interact with legal and healthcare professionals, legislators, regulators and investors. You may attend high profile events, hobnob with those who inspire social change and exchange dialog with thought leaders from all walks of life. As you represent your particular cannabis company, you will recognize that you also represent yourself, and in that very recognition will your thoughtfully chosen vernacular reveal your personal level of professionalism, eloquence and dignity; and irrespective of what, or from whom, any opinion originates, these core values are irreplaceable. Simply put, adults speak like adults.
A colleague reflected that we are not winning a long and drawn out struggle to divest ourselves from outdated prohibitions against the use of medical cannabis because of the words we are using, but because of education. While I agree with that assessment, the use of slang in professional discourse has a tendency to discredit the speaker and narrow the audience receptive to his message. As the scientific community and cannabis industry continues to re-educate society, our efforts will be bolstered by reaching as broad an audience as possible. Education presented professionally, eloquently, and with maturity engenders respect, goodwill and understanding. And that makes for fertile ground upon which to plant new ideas.
In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry. In the third part, we heard from Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., discussing method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited.
In the fourth and final part of this series, we sit down with Susan Audino, Ph.D., an A2LA lead assessor and instructor, laboratory consultant and board member for the Center for Research on Environmental Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Audino will share some insights into method validation and the most technical aspects of laboratory accreditation.
Susan Audino obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an analytical chemistry major, physical and biochemistry minor areas. She currently owns and operates a consulting firm to service chemical and biological laboratories. Susan has been studying the chemistry and applications of cannabinoids and provides scientific and technical guidance to cannabis dispensaries, testing laboratories and medical personnel. Dr. Audino’s interest most directly involves cannabis consumer safety and protection, and promotes active research towards the development of official test methods specifically for the cannabis industry, and to advocate appropriate clinical research. In addition to serving on Expert Review Panels, she is also chairing the first Cannabis Advisory Panel and working group with AOAC International, is a member of the Executive Committee of the ASTM Cannabis Section and has consulted to numerous cannabis laboratories and state regulatory bodies.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What are the some of the most significant technical issues facing an accreditation body when assessing a cannabis-testing laboratory?
Susan: From the AB perspective, there needs to be a high level of expertise to evaluate the merits and scientific soundness of laboratory-developed analytical test methods. Because there are presently no standard or consensus test methods available, laboratories are required to develop their own methods, which need to be valid. Validating methods require a rigorous series of tests and statistical analyses to ensure the correctness and reliability of the laboratory’s product, which is– the test report.
CIJ: When is method validation required and how does this differ from system suitability?
Susan: Method validation is required whenever the laboratory modifies a currently accepted consensus or standard test method, or when the laboratory develops its own method. Method validation is characterized by a series of analytical performance criteria including determinations of accuracy, precision, linearity, specification, limit of detection, and limit of quantitation. The determination of system suitability requires a series of deliberate variations of parameters to ensure the complete system, that is all instrument(s) as well as the analytical method, is maintained throughout the entire analytical process. Traditionally, method validation has been referred to as “ruggedness” and system suitability as “robustness.”
CIJ: What are the most important aspects of method validation that must be taken into account?
Susan: In keeping with the FDA guidelines and other accepted criteria, I tend to recommend the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH), particularly Q 2A, which is a widely recognized program that discusses the pertinent characteristics of method validation. This include: method specification, linearity, range, accuracy, and precision (e.g., repeatability, intermediate precision, reproducibility). As mentioned earlier, system suitability is also a critical element and although related to method validation, does require its own protocol.
CIJ: What three areas do you see the laboratory having the hardest time with in preparing for accreditation?
Susan: My responses to this question assume the laboratory employs appropriate instruments to perform the necessary analyses, and that the laboratory employs personnel with experience and knowledge appropriate to develop test methods and interpret test results.
By and large, method validation that is not appropriate to the scope of their intended work. Driving this is an overall lack of information about method validation. Oftentimes there is an assumption that multiple recoveries of CRMs constitute “validation”. While it may be one element, this only demonstrates the instrument’s suitability. My recommendation is to utilize any one of a number of good single laboratory validation protocols. Options include, but are not limited to AOAC International, American Chemical Society, ASTM, and ICH protocols.
Second is the lack of statistically sound sampling protocols for those laboratories that are mandated by their governing states to go to the field to sample the product from required batches. Sampling protocols needs to address the heterogeneity of the plant, defining the batch, and determining/collecting a sample of sufficient quantity that will be both large enough and representative of the population, and to provide the laboratory an adequate amount from which to sub-sample.
Third, sample preparation. This is somewhat intertwined with my previous point. Once an appropriate sample has been collected, preparation must be relevant to the appropriate technology and assay. It is unlikely that a laboratory can perform a single preparation that is amenable to comprehensive testing.
Yesterday, Shimadzu announced the formation of a partnership with Cure Pharmaceutical Group and CK Sciences to research and develop pharmaceutical cannabis-based products, according to a press release. The three organizations entered a collaborative agreement with the goal of researching and developing products, then moving them through clinical trials using FDA guidelines.
According to the press release, the partnership’s primary goal will be researching and profiling the synergistic effects of the cannabinoids and terpenes, called the “Entourage Effect.”
Shimadzu, a well-know analytical instrument manufacturer, has been making a name for itself in the scientific cannabis space with a number of exciting new ventures. They have worked extensively with cannabis laboratories throughout the country in refining methods and improving analytical chemistry in the space. For example, Shimadzu powers EVIO Labs Florida with over $1.2 million in the latest testing instrumentation.
Tracy Ryan, chief executive officer and founder of CK Sciences, says outfitting their lab for pharmaceutical research was a big priority for starting their venture. “When we met with Shimadzu, and we saw their passion for our mission, we knew we were in incredible hands! When analyzing cannabis everything has to be so precise,” says Ryan. “With Shimadzu’s platforms and team of brilliant scientists supporting our efforts, we have already set ourselves up for success.”
Back in March, Shimadzu launched their Cannabis Analyzer for Potency, a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) designed specifically for quantitative determination of cannabinoid content. The organizations in the partnership will be using that instrument, in addition to a headspace Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) for terpene profiling. Both Cure and CK will use the instruments to generate data, with the goal to validate cannabis as a viable pharmaceutical treatment, according to the press release.
Bob Clifford, Ph.D., general manager of marketing for Shimadzu, says they are excited to work with the organizations. “The emerging pharmaceutical cannabis market requires dedicated, thoughtful leaders eager to showcase the pharmaceutical benefits of cannabis on a scientific level,” says Clifford. “The Cure/CK Sciences group has continuously demonstrated such a leadership commitment, and we’re excited about the opportunities this agreement provides.”
As cannabis conference backdrops go, Cologne (or Köln as it looks to the locals) has some major plusses. Cologne is a German city that has all sorts of both historical and cutting edge things to explore. Plus of course there is the timing. This part of the world just pre-Oktoberfest is a refreshing splash of multi-hued natural colors populated by people who wear lederhosen and dirndls in public (and with great enthusiasm).
Beyond its postcard settings, Cologne is a German center of medical research, as well as public policy making. The intricacies of pre and post war, not to mention post reunification politics, have made this whole region (which includes both Düsseldorf and Bonn) a major powerhouse in both deciding how things get done and then making sure they do. Including on all things scientific and medically focussed.
Overview of the Conference
Where German geographical proximity intersects with the global cannabis research and medical community is the work of the people who have made the International Association for Cannabis Medicines (IACM) one of the leading international scientific and medical cannabis conferences in the world. One look at the speakers list confirms that the top people in the cannabis research world came, spoke and even discussed unpublished research. Yes, that is the mark of a real academic conference. But in a world where medical efficacy is still being challenged, it is worth saying.
Even if you were not old enough to know about cannabis or well read, and had just showed up for the day, the subject matter and presentations were clear, easy to understand and stunning both individually and altogether.
Topics and abstracts ranged from trial data to changing legislation. Peppered between those were visions of where cannabis as medicine is clearly going as well as a far greater understanding of the role of the endocannabinoid system.
As a medical doctor, researcher, public policy expert or medical cannabis distributor, in other words, it is already a must-attend event. It is also packed with investors, not only from Europe but far from its shores.
If there was a message beyond the fact that the cannabis industry is now jumping the shark and going global, it was that the industry has now arrived in Europe and there is no turning back. On any front.
Most Interesting Highlights
It is very hard to pick which was the most ground-breaking research. It all is at this point and it is all fascinating. One of the most heartening abstracts was submitted from Montana. It was just a single patient study. However it showed visual evidence of a stage 1A malignant melanoma completely resolving after 60 days of treatment both topically and orally. Research out of Tel Aviv (of course) was presented showing that low doses of THC might even reverse age-associated cognitive impairments.
All of the genetic research into the plant not to mention new knowledge about terpenes was, literally, spell-binding to those who follow the science. Some of the presentations about ingestion technology in particular, were a clear indication of how much this world will be impacted by tech, where it is not already.
It was stunning just to sit and listen to ground-breaking science that is being produced by globally-known scholars at internationally renowned universities, but still ignored in every place where medical cannabis is not only still illegal, but out of reach of patients.
The current dire situation facing German medical users, of course, was frequently mentioned throughout the conference, and even from the presenting stage, as a human rights crisis.
The Ambassador Program
The conference was, by definition, not only an exchange of information and research, but also a gathering of the scientific cannabinoid community with a global reach. It was also clearly a gathering of academics and scientists on a mission. The dire need to educate both doctors and patients as the details and kinks get worked out on the ground is well recognized here. The IACM at least is also trying to do something about it.
On Friday night, the first full day of the conference, IACM organizers invited conference participants to a side meeting they at first wanted to limit to 30. The idea was to discuss the launch of an ongoing “Ambassador” program as well as a pilot project to help doctors and researchers communicate with each other. More than 60 people showed up and stayed, even if it meant standing against the wall for several hours.
The mood was helpful and light. Dr. Franjo Grotenherman, the best known and leading cannabis advocacy doctor in Germany, kicked off the gathering by serving food to guests before opening the floor to attendees to introduce themselves.
The idea clearly here, is to spread the word, no matter how, as quickly as possible.
An Intimate, Science-Based Networking Event
The event has a different vibe from purely “industry” events. While the industry was clearly in attendance, in other words, it was clearly there in a supportive role. The star of the show was the unbelievable wealth of scientific knowledge that spilled from the stage.
That is not to say that there was not a lot of business conducted here. On all levels. The networking is terrific. And this being the cannabis industry, most people are friendly, open and willing to give a polite stranger a few minutes of their time.
This is an absolutely intriguing event to consider, particularly for Americans who do not have much insight into the European medical or scientific worlds when it comes to cannabis. That includes cannabis clinics in legalizing states to prescribing doctors looking for medical evidence of using CBD in treating their patients. Canadians, Israelis and Swiss were here in force, beyond the locals with representatives from most countries in Europe. If looking to network with an international crowd of doctors, scientists and companies on the cutting edge of cannabis globally, this is absolutely one of the best places on the planet to be.
Laboratories throughout the world and in a variety of industries get accredited to demonstrate their competency. In the cannabis industry, some states are beginning to require it and many labs get accredited even if their state doesn’t require it. So what does accreditation mean and why is it so important?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a standard-setting organization that works to promote industrial and commercial standards. The standards set by ISO are designed to help prove a product’s safety and quality to a certain minimum level.
The ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard sets specific requirements to demonstrate the competence of a lab for carrying out tests. It essentially shows customers or regulators that a lab has the skills and scientific know-how to perform testing, certifying the lab is capable. Accreditation means certifying a lab to that standard and is synonymous with both quality and competence of an organization.
The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), founded in 1978, is a non-profit, internationally recognized accreditation body in the United States that offers laboratory and laboratory-related accreditation services and training. They have worked in the cannabis industry to accredit a number of cannabis laboratories to the ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard. In this series of articles, we sit down with experts from A2LA to learn more about cannabis lab accreditation, why it’s so important and some of the challenges labs face when seeking accreditation.
In the first part of this series, we sit down with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics. Michelle earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Towson State University and then attended Hood College, earning a master’s certificate in Regulatory Compliance in Biomedical Science. She has worked at A2LA for eight years, assisting in the accreditation of food testing, environmental testing and cannabis testing laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025, as well as performing quality system assessments. She also facilitates a number of accreditation programs including Field Sampling Measurement Organizations, STAC (Air Emissions) and Cannabis Testing. Bradac is also a member of the ASTM Cannabis Working Group and the ACIL Cannabis Working Group.
In the next part of this series, we will hear about specific requirements in states, some of the benefits of using ISO/IEC 17025 and the influx of start-up or novice testing laboratories.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is Laboratory Accreditation?
Michelle Bradac: Laboratory accreditation is a formal means of determining and recognizing the technical competence of laboratories to perform specific types of testing, via the use of an independent third party accreditation body. It provides laboratory users a mechanism to identify and select reliable testing organizations. Use of ISO/IEC 17025 as a basis for laboratory accreditation is internationally recognized as THE conformity assessment standard to which laboratories are accredited; it is used in the USA by both Public (State, local, federal (FDA, USDA, CDC, DoD and EPA) and private laboratories for testing of foods & feeds, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco, natural products and cannabis (among other materials and products).
CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the cannabis testing laboratory?
Michelle: It provides a framework for continuous improvement and self-correction where the cannabis testing laboratory data management system is independently reviewed and blinded sample Proficiency Testing is encouraged.
CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the medical cannabis recommending physician?
Michelle: The physician gains a greater degree of assurance that the material provided by the dispensary is what the label says it is. This is especially important in working with patients that are immunocompromised where heavy metals, residual solvents and harmful pesticides could have negative health consequences.
CIJ: How does the testing of medical cannabis by an accredited laboratory benefit the patient?
Michelle: The patient gains increased confidence that the label accurately reflects the potency and chemical properties of the product.
CIJ: What specific challenges does A2LA face in accrediting cannabis testing laboratories?
Michelle: Much of the typical infrastructure is lacking or only now being developed. This ranges from proficiency testing programs, Reference Material Producers, method development and sampling procedures. There is also difficulty in ensuring that laboratories are appropriately validating methods in states where cannabis product is not yet available.
CIJ: Why is A2LA the optimal choice for ensuring the quality and reliability of the results produced by medical marijuana testing laboratories?
Michelle: A2LA has by far the most experience as an accreditor of laboratories that perform testing of natural plant products. We have been performing assessments of and granting accreditation to these types of laboratories for over twenty years. This results in our staff and our assessor corps who are then able to provide valuable insight and technical sophistication that other accreditation bodies do not have. Specific to the cannabis industry, A2LA is also represented in all the major standards development organizations, tradeshows and industry groups; which strengthens our understanding of the industry and ability to assist our customers towards meeting their goal of obtaining accreditation.
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