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The Practical Chemist

Potency Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 2

By Rebecca Stevens
2 Comments

As mentioned in Part 1, the physiological effects of cannabis are mediated by a group of structurally related organic compounds known as cannabinoids. The cannabinoids are biosynthetically produced by a growing cannabis plant and Figure 1 details the biosynthetic pathways leading to some of the most important cannabinoids in plant material.

Potency figure 1
Figure 1: The biosynthetic pathway of phytocannabinoid production in cannabis has been deeply studied through isotopic labeling experiments

The analytical measurement of cannabinoids is important to ensure the safety and quality of cannabis as well as its extracts and edible formulations. Total cannabinoid levels can vary significantly between different cultivars and batches, from about 5% up to 20% or more by dry weight. Information on cannabinoid profiles can be used to tailor cultivars for specific effects and allows end users to select an appropriate dose.

Routine Analysis vs. Cannabinomics 

Several structurally analogous groups of cannabinoids exist. In total, structures have been assigned for more than 70 unique phytocannabinoids as of 2005 and the burgeoning field of cannabinomics seeks to comprehensively measure these compounds.¹

Considering practical potency analysis, the vast majority of cannabinoid content is accounted for by 10-12 compounds. These include Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), Δ9-tetrahydrocannabivarian (THCV), cannabidivarin (CBDV) and their respective carboxylic acid forms. The cannabinoids occur primarily as carboxylic acids in plant material. Decarboxylation occurs when heat is applied through smoking, vaporization or cooking thereby producing neutral cannabinoids which are more physiologically active.

Potency Analysis by HPLC and GC

Currently, HPLC and GC are the two most commonly used techniques for potency analysis. In the case of GC, the heat used to vaporize the injected sample causes decarboxylation of the native cannabinoid acids. Derivatization of the acids may help reduce decarboxylation but overall this adds another layer of complexity to the analysis² ³. HPLC is the method of choice for direct analysis of cannabinoid profiles and this technique will be discussed further.

A sample preparation method consisting of grinding/homogenization and alcohol extraction is commonly used for cannabis flower and extracts. It has been shown to provide good recovery and precision² ³. An aliquot of the resulting extract can then be diluted with an HPLC compatible solvent such as 25% water / 75% acetonitrile with 0.1% formic acid. The cannabinoids are not particularly water soluble and can precipitate if the aqueous percentage is too high.

To avoid peak distortion and shifting retention times the diluent and initial mobile phase composition should be reasonably well matched. Another approach is to make a smaller injection (1-2 µL) of a more dissimilar solvent. The addition of formic acid or ammonium formate buffer acidifies the mobile phase and keeps the cannabinoid acids protonated.

The protonated acids are neutral and thus well retained on a C18 type column, even at higher (~50% or greater) concentrations of organic solvent² ³.

Detection is most often done using UV absorbance. Two main types of UV detectors are available for HPLC, single wavelength and diode array. A diode array detector (DAD) measures absorbance across a range of wavelengths producing a spectrum at each point in a chromatogram while single wavelength detectors only monitor absorbance at a single user selected wavelength. The DAD is more expensive, but very useful for detecting coelutions and interferences.

References

  1. Chemical Constituents of Marijuana: The Complex Mixture of Natural Cannabinoids. Life Sciences, 78, (2005), pp. 539
  2. Development and Validation of a Reliable and Robust Method for the Analysis of Cannabinoids and Terpenes in Cannabis. Journal of AOAC International, 98, (2015), pp. 1503
  3. Innovative Development and Validation of an HPLC/DAD Method for the Qualitative and Quantitative Determination of Major Cannabinoids in Cannabis Plant Material. Journal of Chromatography B, 877, (2009), pp. 4115

Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, rebecca.stevens@restek.com or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)

amandarigdon
The Practical Chemist

Easy Ways to Generate Scientifically Sound Data

By Amanda Rigdon
1 Comment
amandarigdon

I have been working with the chemical analysis side of the cannabis industry for about six years, and I have seen tremendous scientific growth on the part of cannabis labs over that time. Based on conversations with labs and the presentations and forums held at cannabis analytical conferences, I have seen the cannabis analytical industry move from asking, “how do we do this analysis?” to asking “how do we do this analysis right?” This change of focus represents a milestone in the cannabis industry; it means the industry is growing up. Growing up is not always easy, and that is being reflected now in a new focus on understanding and addressing key issues such as pesticides in cannabis products, and asking important questions about how regulation of cannabis labs will occur.

While sometimes painful, growth is always good. To support this evolution, we are now focusing on the contribution that laboratories make to the safety of the cannabis consumer through the generation of quality data. Much of this focus has been on ensuring scientifically sound data through regulation. But Restek is neither a regulatory nor an accrediting body. Restek is dedicated to helping analytical chemists in all industries and regulatory environments produce scientifically sound data through education, technical support and expert advice regarding instrumentation and supplies. I have the privilege of supporting the cannabis analytical testing industry with this goal in mind, which is why I decided to write a regular column detailing simple ways analytical laboratories can improve the quality of their chromatographic data right now, in ways that are easy to implement and are cost effective.

Anyone with an instrument can perform chromatographic analysis and generate data. Even though results are generated, these results may not be valid. At the cannabis industry’s current state, no burden of proof is placed on the analytical laboratory regarding the validity of its results, and there are few gatekeepers between those results and the consumer who is making decisions based on them. Even though some chromatographic instruments are super fancy and expensive, the fact is that every chromatographic instrument – regardless of whether it costs ten thousand or a million dollars – is designed to spit out a number. It is up to the chemist to ensure that number is valid.

In the first couple of paragraphs of this article, I used terms to describe ‘good’ data like ‘scientifically-sound’ or ‘quality’, but at the end of the day, the definition of ‘good’ data is valid data. If you take the literal meaning, valid data is justifiable, logically correct data. Many of the laboratories I have had the pleasure of working with over the years are genuinely dedicated to the production of valid results, but they also need to minimize costs in order to remain competitive. The good news is that laboratories can generate valid scientific results without breaking the bank.

In each of my future articles, I will focus on one aspect of valid data generation, such as calibration and internal standards, explore it in practical detail and go over how that aspect can be applied to common cannabis analyses. The techniques I will be writing about are applied in many other industries, both regulated and non-regulated, so regardless of where the regulations in your state end up, you can already have a head start on the analytical portion of compliance. That means you have more time to focus on the inevitable paperwork portion of regulatory compliance – lucky you! Stay tuned for my next column on instrument calibration, which is the foundation for producing quality data. I think it will be the start of a really good series and I am looking forward to writing it.