Tag Archives: instrumentation

Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 3

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry.

In the third part of this series, we sit down with Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., to talk method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited. In the final part of this series, we are going to sit down with Susan Audino, an instructor at A2LA to learn more about the requirements where she’ll offer some advice for labs seeking accreditation.

Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc.

Michael DeGregorio is a doctor of pharmacy with an extensive career in medicine and scientific research. He’s worked in cancer research and medicine, teaching at the University of California, San Francisco, Yale University School of Medicine, University of Texas, Health Science Center at San Antonio and University of California, Davis. Before becoming the CEO of Konocti Analytics, a laboratory based in California, DeGregorio was also a published author in a large number of peer-reviewed medical journals.

In this piece, we sit down with DeGregorio to find out what challenges labs face when getting accredited, why they sought accreditation and their experience with getting off the ground. Stay tuned for the final part of this series!

CannabisIndustryJournal: How does a laboratory go about choosing an appropriate method in an industry where, generally, there are no validated methods available?

Michael DeGregorio: Our approach to developing analytical methods for testing cannabis began with a review of the existing laboratories and their methods, where we found no standardization and inconsistent results. Since cannabis is being used by the public and as a medicine, our goal is to help make it as contaminant-free as possible for the well-being of the consumer, and this begins by developing a state-of-the-art analytical facility.

When developing new methods, we review the published literature to see what has already been done and try to arrive at a scientifically sound consensus. We then perform experiments to determine which set of conditions works best for us. Once we have developed an appropriate method, we validate it pursuant to ISO/IEC 17025 requirements.

CIJ: How do you go about choosing what type of equipment to use for testing (e.g. by limit of detection, acceptable method use of equipment for other industries, etc.)?

Michael: After reviewing the operations of other testing laboratories, we concluded that, in general, they were not taking advantage of the most advanced technologies and had limited personnel qualified to operate it. Because public safety is our main concern, we chose state-of-the-art equipment, including GC/LC-MS with Orbitrap and ICP-MS, for testing medicinal cannabis. In addition to identifying unknown pesticides, we needed the capability of performing full chemical screening of all samples for potentially harmful compounds, e.g. steroids, present in cannabis, as well as the ability to detect trace levels of metals.

Our greatest concern is the fact that pesticides in cannabis have not been adequately studied. Current pesticide regulations suggest that government authorities believe that there are a finite number of pesticides available. Smart farmers could easily avoid the pesticides on current lists. Because of this, we chose to validate our pesticide methods with a focus on chemical classes, as opposed to specific pesticides, to give us the broadest possible coverage of potential compounds. The Orbitrap mass spectrometers also allow us to detect and identify unknown pesticides. This is something not currently being done by other laboratories. The latest microbiology methods for cannabis testing include DNA analysis, and for this we use qRT-PCR technology. Finally, the high sensitivity of ICP-MS allows for the detection of metals concentrations that may be harmful, yet undetectable by other means.

CIJ: What do you feel are the benefits of being accredited?

Michael: Being accredited shows the public that we have made a commitment to quality analytics. We feel this gives our clients peace of mind when marketing their products, knowing that they have been tested by a laboratory meeting the highest international standards of operation available using the latest technology. Furthermore, being accredited requires participation in ongoing proficiency testing programs, which helps maintain analytical competency. It should be pointed out that any prospective client of an analytical facility should take into account the laboratory’s full accredited scope of testing to ensure its competency.

CIJ: What challenges did you face during the process of getting your laboratory started and/or during the accreditation process?

Michael: Developing the quality management system and getting our equipment and processes to a state where they met accreditation requirements took several months of hard work, and turned out to be a bit more daunting than we anticipated. Our pre-accreditation assessment revealed that much work remained to be done, and it gave us a real appreciation for the level of detail and documentation required. We remained determined and eventually achieved our accreditation.

CIJ: What are the benefits to the grower and dispensaries to choosing an accredited laboratory for the testing of their product?

Michael: By choosing an accredited laboratory with a full scope of testing (potency, pesticides, mycotoxins, metals, microbiology, residual solvents and terpenes), growers and dispensaries can rest assured that their products have been tested using validated methods with appropriate quality control by trained, competent personnel. For growers, this makes their products more attractive to potential buyers. For dispensaries, this means they can confidently market their products with the knowledge that the information shown on the label is accurate, which in turn gives their customers peace of mind that the product they are consuming does not contain unacceptable levels of contaminants. 

CIJ: Why did you choose A2LA?

Michael: Once we decided to pursue accreditation, we researched the various accrediting bodies available as well as their reputations. We discovered that while all accrediting bodies are themselves accredited to the same standard, accreditation by the various bodies was not considered equal in practice. In our opinion, A2LA was considered the most prestigious, highly regarded accrediting body. Furthermore, some of the most prestigious laboratories in the country are accredited by A2LA, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Agriculture. Many of our preferred sources of scientific supplies and services are accredited by A2LA as well. As our goal was to be accredited by the best available accrediting body, we chose A2LA.

Shimadzu, Cure And CK Sciences Partner On R&D of Pharmaceutical Cannabis Products

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

The Cannabis Analyzer For Potency

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.”

Quality Assurance In The Field: Instruments For Growers & Processors

By Aaron G. Biros
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As the cannabis marketplace evolves, so does the technology. Cultivators are scaling up their production and commercial-scale operations are focusing more on quality. That greater attention to detail is leading growers, extractors and infused product manufacturers to use analytical chemistry as a quality control tool.

Previously, using analytical instrumentation, like mass spectrometry (MS) or gas chromatography (GC), required experience in the laboratory or with chromatography, a degree in chemistry or a deep understanding of analytical chemistry. This leaves the testing component to those that are competent enough and scientifically capable to use these complex instruments, like laboratory personnel, and that is still the case. As recent as less than two years ago, we began seeing instrument manufacturers making marketing claims that their instrument requires no experience in chromatography.

Instrument manufacturers are now competing in a new market: the instrument designed for quality assurance in the field. These instruments are more compact, lighter and easier to use than their counterparts in the lab. While they are no replacement for an accredited laboratory, manufacturers promise these instruments can give growers an accurate estimate for cannabinoid percentages. Let’s take a look at a few of these instruments designed and marketed for quality assurance in the field, specifically for cannabis producers.

Ellutia GC 200 Series

Shamanics, a cannabis extractor in Amsterdam, uses Ellutia’s 200 series for QA testing

Ellutia is an instrument manufacturer from the UK. They design and produce a range of gas chromatographs, GC accessories, software and consumables, most of which are designed for use in a laboratory. Andrew James, marketing director at Ellutia, says their instrument targeting this segment was originally designed for educational purposes. “The GC is compact in size and lightweight in stature with a full range of detectors,” says James. “This means not only is it portable and easy to access but also easy to use, which is why it was initially intended for the education market.”

Andrew James, marketing director at Ellutia

That original design for use in teaching, James says, is why cannabis producers might find it so user-friendly. “It offers equivalent performance to other GC’s meaning we can easily replace other GC’s performing the same analysis, but our customers can benefit from the lower space requirement, reduced energy bills, service costs and initial capital outlay,” says James. “This ensures the lowest possible cost of ownership, decreasing the cost per analysis and increasing profits on every sample analyzed.”

Shamanics, a cannabis oil extraction company based in Amsterdam, uses Ellutia’s 200 series for quality assurance in their products. According to Bart Roelfsema, co-founder of Shamanics, they have experienced a range of improvements in monitoring quality since they started using the 200 series. “It is very liberating to actually see what you are doing,” says Roelfsema. “If you are a grower, a manufacturer or a seller, it is always reassuring to see what you have and prove or improve on your quality.” Although testing isn’t commonplace in the Netherlands quite yet, the consumer demand is rising for tested products. “We also conduct terpene analysis and cannabinoid acid analysis,” says Roelfsema. “This is a very important aspect of the GC as now it is possible to methylate the sample and test for acids; and the 200 Series is very accurate, which is a huge benefit.” Roelfsema says being able to judge quality product and then relay that information to retail is helping them grow their business and stay ahead of the curve.

908 Devices G908 GC-HPMS

908 Devices, headquartered in Boston, is making a big splash in this new market with their modular G908 GC-HPMS. The company says they are “democratizing chemical analysis by way of mass spectrometry,” with their G908 device. That is a bold claim, but rather appropriate, given that MS used to be reserved strictly for the lab environment. According to Graham Shelver, Ph.D., commercial leader for Applied Markets at 908 Devices Inc., their company is making GC-HPMS readily available to users wanting to test cannabis products, who do not need to be trained analytical chemists.

The G908 device.

Shelver says they have made the hardware modular, letting the user service the device themselves. This, accompanied by simplified software, means you don’t need a Ph.D. to use it. “The “analyzer in a box” design philosophy behind the G908 GC-HPMS and the accompanying JetStream software has been to make using the entire system as straightforward as possible so that routine tasks such as mass axis calibration are reduced to simple single actions and sample injection to results reporting becomes a single button software operation,” says Shelver.

He also says while it is designed for use in the field, laboratories also use it to meet higher-than-usual demand. Both RM3 Labs in Colorado, and ProVerde in Massachusetts, use G908. “RM3’s main goal with the G908 is increased throughput and ProVerde has found it useful in adding an orthogonal and very rapid technique (GC-HPMS) to their suite of cannabis testing instruments,” says Shelver.

Orange Photonics LightLab Cannabis Analyzer

Orange Photonics’ LightLab Cannabis Analyzer

Dylan Wilks, a third generation spectroscopist, launched Orange Photonics with his team to produce analytical tools that are easy to use and can make data accessible where it has been historically absent, such as onsite testing within the cannabis space. According to Stephanie McArdle, president of Orange Photonics, the LightLab Cannabis Analyzer is based on the same principles as HPLC technology, combining liquid chromatography with spectroscopy. Unlike an HPLC however, LightLab is rugged, portable and they claim you do not need to be a chemist to use it.

“LightLab was developed to deliver accurate repeatable results for six primary cannabinoids, D9THC, THC-A, CBD, CBD-A, CBG-A and CBN,” says McArdle. “The sample prep is straightforward: Prepare a homogenous, representative sample, place a measured portion in the provided vial, introduce extraction solvent, input the sample into LightLab and eight minutes later you will have your potency information.” She says their goal is to ensure producers can get lab-grade results.

The hard plastic case is a unique feature of this instrument

McArdle also says the device is designed to test a wide range of samples, allowing growers, processors and infused product manufacturers to use it for quality assurance. “Extracts manufacturers use LightLab to limit loss- they accurately value trim purchases on the spot, they test throughout their extraction process including tests on spent material (raffinate) and of course the final product,” says McArdle. “Edibles manufacturers test the potency of their raw ingredients and check batch dosing. Cultivators use LightLab for strain selection, maturation monitoring, harvesting at peak and tinkering.”

Orange Photonics’ instrument also connects to devices via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. McArdle says cannabis companies throughout the supply chain use it. “We aren’t trying to replace lab testing, but anyone making a cannabis product is shooting in the dark if they don’t have access to real time data about potency,” says McArdle.

Ask the Expert: Q&A with Steve Stadlmann on Cannabis lab Accreditation

By Aaron G. Biros
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Steve Stadlmann has an extensive background as an analytical chemist working in laboratories since the early 90’s. He is now a sales specialist at PerkinElmer, an analytical instrument manufacturer that provides instruments for cannabis testing labs, in addition to a host of other industries. With over two decades of experience working in environmental testing labs, food and beverage labs and agricultural testing labs, Stadlmann is extremely familiar with the instruments used in cannabis labs.

Steve Stadlmann, sales specialist at Perkin Elmer

In 2014, he started working in the cannabis space with TriQ, Inc., a technology solutions provider for cannabis growers, where he worked in product development on a line of nutrients. In April of 2016, he started working at Juniper Analytics, a cannabis-testing laboratory in Bend, Oregon. As laboratory director there, he created their quality manual, quality assurance plan, SOP’s and all the technical documentation for ORELAP accreditation. He developed new methodologies for cannabis testing industry for residual solvents, terpene profiles and potency analysis. He worked with PerkinElmer on pesticide methodology for the QSight™ Triple Quadrupole LC/MS/MS system and implemented operational procedures and methods for LC-UV, GCMS and LC-MS/MS, including sample prep for cannabis products.

He left Juniper Analytics about two months ago to work with PerkinElmer as a sales specialist. With extensive experience in helping get Juniper’s lab accredited, he is a wealth of knowledge on all things cannabis laboratory accreditation. PerkinElmer will be hosting a free webinar on September 12th that takes a deep dive into all things cannabis lab accreditation. Ahead of the upcoming webinar, Getting Accreditation in the Cannabis Industry, we sit down with Stadlmann to hear his observations on what instruments he recommends for accreditation, and processes and procedures to support that. Take a look at our conversation below to get a glimpse into what this webinar will discuss.

CannabisIndustryJournal: How can cannabis labs prepare for accreditation with selecting instrumentation?

Steve: Finding the appropriate instrumentation for the regulations is crucial. Ensuring the instrumentation not only has the capabilities of analyzing all the required compounds, but also able to achieve appropriate detection limit requirements. In addition, having an instrument manufacturer as a partner, that is willing and able to assist in method development, implementation and continued changes to the testing requirements at the state level (and potentially national level) is key.

Another consideration is robustness of the equipment. The instrumentation must be capable of high throughput for fast turnaround times of results. Unlike the environmental industry, the cannabis industry has consumer products with expiration dates. Clients demand quick turnaround of results to get product to market as quickly as possible and avoid sitting on inventory for any length of time.

To add to the robustness need, sample matrices in the cannabis industry can be quite challenging in relation to analytical instrumentation. Equipment that is able to handle these matrices with minimal downtime for routine service is becoming a requirement to maintain throughput needs of the industry.

CIJ: What are the most crucial procedures and practices for achieving ISO 17025 accreditation?

Steve: Development and documentation of processes and procedures following Good Laboratory Practices and procedures is essential to a successful accreditation process. Great attention must be paid to the quality objectives of the laboratory as well as associated documentation, including tracking of any errors, deviations, updates, complaints, etc.

Data integrity is a key component to any accrediting body and includes implementation and/or development of appropriate methods with support data proving acceptable results. In addition, documentation of all procedures and processes along with tracking of all steps in the process during routine laboratory work should be a priority. The ability to show a complete, documented trail of all procedures done to any sample is important in ensuring the results can be reproduced and ensuring no deviations occurred, in turn potentially causing questionable results.

Last but not least: training. Laboratory staff should be well versed in any procedures they are involved in to ensure high data quality and integrity. If any laboratory staff does not receive appropriate training in any operating procedures, the data quality becomes suspect.

CIJ: What are some of the biggest obstacles or pitfalls cannabis labs face when trying to get accredited?

Steve: Not fully preparing to meet any agency and testing regulations and requirements will cause delays in the accreditation process and potentially more work for the laboratory. From documentation to daily operations, if any aspect becomes a major finding for an auditor, additional data is usually required to prove the error has been fixed satisfactorily.

Taking the time early on to ensure all documentation, processes and procedures are adhering to any regulatory agency requirements is important for a smooth accreditation process. It is easy to overlook small details when building out the operating procedures that might be essential in the process. Again, going back to data quality, the laboratory must ensure all steps are outlined and documented to ensure high quality (reproducible) data and integrity.

A new employee should be able to come in and read a quality manual and standard operating procedure and produce equivalent data to any laboratory analyst doing the same job. With difficult or challenging operating procedures it becomes even more important that training and documentation are adhered to.


PerkinElmer’s free webinar will dive into these points and others in more detail. To learn more and sign up, click here.

The Practical Chemist

Instrumentation for Heavy Metals Analysis in Cannabis

By Chris English
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Determination of Toxic Metals in Cannabis

Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants often resulting from mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants, amount other sources. Several remediation strategies exist that are common for the reduction/elimination of metals in the environment. Phytoremediation is one method for removing metals from soil, utilizing plants to uptake metals which then bioaccumulate in the plant matter. In one study, cesium concentrations were found to be 8,000 times greater in the plant roots compared to the surrounding water in the soil. In 1998, cannabis was specifically tested at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site for its ability to remediate the contaminated soil. These examples demonstrate that cannabis must be carefully cultivated to avoid the uptake of toxic metals. Possible sources would not only include the growing environment, but also materials such as fertilizers. Many states publish metal content in fertilizer products allowing growers to select the cleanest product for their plants. For cannabis plant material and concentrates several states have specific limits for cadmium (Cd), Lead (Pb), Arsenic (As) and Mercury (Hg), based on absolute limits in product or daily dosage by body weight.

Analytical Approaches to Metals Determination

Inductively Coupled Plasma, Ionized Argon gas stream. Photo Courtesy: Sigma via Wikimedia Commons

Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (Flame AA) and Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (GFAA) are both techniques that determine both the identity and quantity of specific elements. For both of these techniques, the absorption in intensity of a specific light source is measured following the atomization of the sample digestate using either a flame or an electrically heated graphite tube. Reference standards are analyzed prior to the samples in order to develop a calibration that relates the concentration of each element relative to its absorbance. For these two techniques, each element is often determined individually, and the light source, most commonly a hollow cathode lamp (HLC) or electrodeless discharge lamp (EDL) are specific for each element. The two most common types of Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (AES) are; Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES) and ICP-Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). Both of these techniques use an argon plasma for atomization of the sample digestates. This argon plasma is maintained using a radio frequency generator that is capable of atomization and excitation of the majority of the elements on the periodic table. Due to the considerably higher energy of the plasma-based instruments, they are more capable than the flame or furnace based systems for measurement of a wide range of elements. Additionally, they are based on optical emission, or mass spectrometric detection, and are capable of analysis of all elements at essentially the same time.

Technique Selection

Flame AA is easy to use, inexpensive and can provide reasonable throughput for a limited number of elements. However, changes to light sources and optical method parameters are necessary when determining different metals. GFAA is also limited by similar needs to change the light sources, though it is capable of greater sensitivity for most elements as compared to flame AA. Runtimes are on the order of three minutes per element for each sample, which can result in lower laboratory throughput and greater sample digestate consumption. While the sensitivity of the absorption techniques is reasonable, the dynamic range can be more limited requiring re-analyses and dilutions to get the sample within the calibration range. ICP-OES allows the simultaneous analysis of over 70 elements in approximately a minute per sample with a much greater linear dynamic range. ICP-OES instruments cost about 2-5 times more than AA instruments. ICP-MS generally has the greatest sensitivity (sub-parts-per-trillion, for some elements) with the ability to determine over 70 elements per minute. Operator complexity, instrument expense and MS stability, as well as cost are some of the disadvantages. The US FDA has a single laboratory validated method for ICP-MS for elements in food using microwave assisted digestion, and New York State recently released a method for the analysis of metals in medical cannabis products by ICP-MS (NYS DOH LINC-250).

The use of fertilizers, and other materials, with low metal content is one step necessary to providing a safe product and maintaining customer confidence. The state-by-state cannabis regulations will continue to evolve which will require instrumentation that is flexible enough to quickly accommodate added metals to the regulatory lists, lower detection limits while adding a high level of confidence in the data.

The Practical Chemist

Instrumentation Used for Terpene Analysis

By Tim Herring
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Terpenes are a group of volatile, unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants. They are responsible for the characteristic smells and flavors of most plants, such as conifers, citrus, as well as cannabis. Over 140 terpenes have been identified to date and these unique compounds may have medicinal properties. Caryophyllene, for example, emits a sweet, woody, clove taste and is believed to relieve inflammation and produce a neuroprotective effect through CB2 receptor activation. Limonene has a citrus scent and may possess anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-depression effects. Pinene is responsible for the pine aroma and acts as a bronchodilator. One theory involving terpenes is the Entourage Effect, a synergistic benefit from the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.

Many customers ask technical service which instrumentation is best, GC or HPLC, for analysis of terpenes. Terpenes are most amenable to GC, due to their inherent volatility. HPLC is generally not recommended; since terpenes have very low UV or MS sensitivity; the cannabinoids (which are present in percent levels) will often interfere or coelute with many of the terpenes.

Figure 1: Terpene profile via headspace, courtesy of ProVerde Laboratories.

Headspace (HS), Solid Phase Microextraction of Headspace (HS-SPME) or Split/Splitless Injection (SSI) are viable techniques and have advantages and disadvantages. While SPME can be performed by either direct immersion with the sample or headspace sampling, HS-SPME is considered the most effective technique since this approach eliminates the complex oil matrix. Likewise, conventional HS also targets volatiles that include the terpenes, leaving the high molecular weight oils and cannabinoids behind (Figure 1). SSI eliminates the complexity of a HS or SPME concentrator/autosampler, however, sensitivity and column lifetime become limiting factors to high throughput, since the entire sample is introduced to the inlet and ultimately the column.

The GC capillary columns range from thicker film, mid-polarity (Rxi-624sil MS for instance) to thinner film, non-polar 100% polysiloxane-based phases, such as an Rxi-1ms. A thicker film provides the best resolution among the highly volatile, early eluting compounds, such as pinene. Heavier molecular weight compounds, such as the cannabinoids, are difficult to bake off of the mid-polarity phases. A thinner, non-polar film enables the heavier terpenes and cannabinoids to elute efficiently and produces sharp peaks. Conversely the early eluting terpenes will often coelute using a thin film column. Columns that do not contain cyano-functional groups (Rxi-624Sil MS), are more robust and have higher temperature limits and lower bleed.

For the GC detector, a Mass Spectrometer (MS) can be used, however, many of the terpenes are isobars, sharing the same ions used for identification and quantification. Selectivity is the best solution, regardless of the detector. The Flame Ionization Detector (FID) is less expensive to purchase and operate and has a greater dynamic range, though it is not as sensitive, nor selective for coeluting impurities.

By accurately and reproducibly quantifying terpenes, cannabis medicines can be better characterized and controlled. Strains, which may exhibit specific medical and psychological traits, can be identified and utilized to their potential. The lab objectives, customer expectations, state regulations, available instrumentation, and qualified lab personnel will ultimately determine how the terpenes will be analyzed.

Shimadzu Launches Cannabis Analyzer for Potency

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Monday, March 6th, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, a leading laboratory analytical instrumentation manufacturer, announced the launch of a new product focused on cannabis, according to a press release. Their Cannabis Analyzer for Potency is essentially a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) packaged with integrated hardware, software, workflows and all the supplies. The supplies include an analytical column, guard columns, mobile phase and a CRM standard mixture.canAnalyzerImg1

The instrument is designed to test for 11 cannabinoids in less time and with greater ease than traditional HPLC instruments. In the press release, they claim “operators are now able to produce accurate results with ease, regardless of cannabis testing knowledge or chromatography experience.” One very unique aspect of the instrument is the lack of experience required to run it, according to Bob Clifford, general manager of marketing at Shimadzu. “We have our typical chromatography software [LabSolutions] with an overlay that allows the user to analyze a sample in three simple steps,” says Clifford. Those in the cannabis industry that have a background in plant science, but not analytical chemistry, could run potency analyses on the instrument with minimal training. “This overlay allows ease of use for those not familiar with chromatography software,” says Clifford.

An overlay of a flower sample with the standards supplied in the High-Sensitivity Method package.
An overlay of a flower sample with the standards supplied in the High-Sensitivity Method package.

The instrument can determine cannabinoid percentages per dry weight in flower concentrates and edibles. “Once you open the software, it will get the flow rate started, heat the column up and automatically begin to prep for analysis,” says Clifford. Before the analysis begins, information like the sample ID number, sample name, sample weight, extraction volume and dilution volume are entered. After the analysis is complete all the test results are reported for each sample.

Because laboratories wouldn’t have to develop quantitative testing methodology, they argue this instrument would save a lot of time in the lab. “After one day of installation and testing, users are equipped with everything they need to obtain cannabis potency results,” states the press release. According to Clifford, method development for potency analysis in-house can take some labs up to three months. “We can bring this instrument to the lab and have it ready for testing almost immediately,” says Clifford. “The methods for this instrument were developed by a team of twenty scientists working on different platforms at our Innovation Center and was tested for ruggedness, repeatability and quantitative accuracy.”

Screenshots from the software on the instrument
Screenshots from the software on the instrument

The instrument’s workflow is designed to meet three methods of analysis depending on testing needs. The High Throughput method package can determine quantities of ten cannabinoids with less than eight minutes per sample. The method was developed in collaboration with commercial testing laboratories. The High Sensitivity method package adds THCV to that target analyte list with ten minutes per analysis. The method provides the sharpest chromatographic peaks and best sensitivity. The High Resolution method package offers full baseline resolution for those 11 cannabinoids in less than 30 minutes per analysis and the ability to add cannabinoids to that target list if regulations change.

The press release states the interface should allow users to reduce the number of steps needed in the analysis and simplify the workflow. The instrument comes with a three-year warranty, preventative maintenance plan and lifetime technical support.

amandarigdon
The Nerd Perspective

Pesticide Detection in Cannabis: Lab Challenges and Why Less Isn’t Always More

By Amanda Rigdon
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amandarigdon

Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

The Big Challenge

Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.

Responding to the Challenge

One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.

Less isn’t always more…

Spiral Galaxy Milky Way
The Milky Way

In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.

FDAIn reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.

green apple with slice isolated on the white background.

A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.

How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?

The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.

*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)

The Practical Chemist

Appropriate Instrumentation for the Chemical Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 1

By Rebecca Stevens
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Election Day 2016 resulted in historic gains for state level cannabis prohibition reform. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada chose to legalize adult use of Cannabis sp. and its extracts while even traditionally conservative states like Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota enacted policy allowing for medical use. More than half of the United States now allows for some form of legal cannabis use, highlighting the rapidly growing need for high quality analytical testing.

For the uninitiated, analytical instrumentation can be a confusing mix of abbreviations and hyphenation that provides little obvious information about an instrument’s capability, advantages and disadvantages. In this series of articles, my colleagues and I at Restek will break down and explain in practical terms what instruments are appropriate for a particular analysis and what to consider when choosing an instrumental technique.

Potency Analysis

Potency analysis refers to the quantitation of the major cannabinoids present in Cannabis sp. These compounds are known to provide the physiological effects of cannabis and their levels can vary dramatically based on cultivation practices, product storage conditions and extraction practices.

The primary technique is high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to ultraviolet absorbance (UV) detection. Gas chromatography (GC) coupled to a flame ionization detector (FID) or mass spectrometry (MS) can provide potency information but suffers from issues that preclude its use for comprehensive analysis.

Pesticide Residue Analysis

Pesticide residue analysis is, by a wide margin, the most technically challenging testing that we will discuss here. Trace levels of pesticides incurred during cultivation can be transferred to the consumer both on dried plant material and in extracts prepared from the contaminated material. These compounds can be acutely toxic and are generally regulated at part per billion parts-per-billion levels (PPB).

Depending on the desired target pesticides and detection limits, HPLC and/or GC coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) or high resolution accurate mass spectrometry (HRAM) is strongly recommended. Tandem and HRAM mass spectrometry instrumentation is expensive, but in this case it is crucial and will save untold frustration during method development.

Residual Solvents Analysis

When extracts are produced from plant material using organic solvents such as butane, alcohols or supercritical carbon dioxide there is a potential for the solvent and any other contaminants present in it to become trapped in the extract. The goal of residual solvent analysis is to detect and quantify solvents that may remain in the finished extract.

Residual solvent analysis is best accomplished using GC coupled to a headspace sample introduction system (HS-GC) along with FID or MS detection. Solid phase microextraction (SPME) of the sample headspace with direct introduction to the GC is another option.

Terpene Profile Analysis

While terpene profiles are not a safety issue, they provide much of the smell and taste experience of cannabis and are postulated to synergize with the physiologically active components. Breeders of Cannabis sp. are often interested in producing strains with specific terpene profiles through selective breeding techniques.

Both GC and HPLC can be employed successfully for terpenes analysis. Mass spectrometry is suitable for detection as well as GC-FID and HPLC-UV.

Heavy Metals Analysis

Metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury can be present in cannabis plant material due to uptake from the soil, fertilizers or hydroponic media by a growing plant. Rapidly growing plants like Cannabis sp. are particularly efficient at extracting and accumulating metals from their environment.

Several different types of instrumentation can be used for metals analysis, but the dominant technology is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Other approaches can also be used including ICP coupled with optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES).

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)

An inductively coupled plasma torch used in MS reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
An inductively coupled plasma torch used in Optical Emission Spectroscopy (OES) reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia