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Overcoming Technical Challenges in Cannabis Analysis

By Jack Rudd

Published: Jul 24, 2018   
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As the cannabis testing sector matures, attention continues to focus on enhancing analytical quality and meeting challenging new regulatory requirements. The list of analytes of interest is growing as the diversity of cannabis-containing products expands. And, as a result, the need for reliable, effective instruments and methods increases too. Meeting the unique challenges of cannabis analysis in this ever-evolving regulatory environment is no small feat. Fortunately, experienced hands are ready to help. From overcoming technical challenges like matrix effects to helping develop cost-effective, reliable analytical methods and enabling labs to maintain compliance, experienced technology providers are helping to fill the gaps. 

In this interview, we focus on PerkinElmer, who has been actively engaging with testing labs in the cannabis industry. Their mission is to help cannabis testing labs meet regulatory standards and ensure consumers in the states and countries in which cannabis is legalized are using safe and correctly labeled products. 

In this first part of the interview, we spoke to Dr. Kaveh Kahen, Senior Director and General Manager of Mass Spectrometry for PerkinElmer, to get his view on technical challenges in cannabis testing and how they can help labs in this growing industry.

Ash Board (AB): What do see as the biggest technical challenges in cannabis analysis?

Kaveh Kahen (KK): When it comes to cannabis analysis, the single biggest challenge is that the samples come in many different shapes and forms. Just speaking from an analytical chemist’s perspective, we are dealing with very challenging matrices. For example, extracts and oils are very viscous which causes big issues in sample prep; flowers have their own challenges in terms of extraction. Recently, we have seen samples in the form of toothpaste, creams, etc. This wide range of samples introduces a big challenge from a sample prep perspective.

As legalization expands, the ever-evolving individual state regulations are an issue too. They require these labs to look at, in the case of California, 72 pesticides and 92 in Canada. This is a long list of compounds and the method development is not very straightforward, especially in a challenging matrix. These extensive requirements make it hard to run a single method with the same conditions and get good quality results.

Considering that a lot of the labs are newcomers to the field of testing, I also think some are underestimating the kind of challenges that they're facing. At PerkinElmer, we have been developing analytical instruments and methods for 80 years. So, we bring a lot of knowledge and value to the table. For us, testing cannabis versus orange juice or grains, it is not all that different in many ways. We use similar methodologies, sample prep, and data analysis to achieve accurate and precise analytical measurements. We have the expertise and technology to help these labs overcome the unique challenges cannabis poses. Whether it’s in sample prep, setting up the method or running the sample, we bring years of experience to the table.

AB: You mentioned that doing this kind of complex analysis with a single method is challenging. What are the benefits of single method solutions? 

KK: Time is money for these labs, so if you can do everything in a single method, that’s obviously going to save you time. One advantage of our QSight™ Triple Quad platform is that in California, for the 72 pesticides, we can run and meet all the regulations for every pesticide in one single LC-QQQ method. We don’t need a GC-QQQ or any other instrument to run this method. We also have a single method for heavy metals with our inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry system (ICP-MS).

So yes, wherever possible we want to minimize the analysis time and not run the same set of samples two or three times. In the case of QSight, we can achieve this because we have a true dual source instrument that can utilize both electrospray ionization (ESI) and atmospheric-pressure chemical ionization (APCI) in one system. For the 72 pesticides required in California, 70 of them can be analyzed with electrospray ionization, there are just two that require us to switch to the APCI source in that dual source system. With our competitors’ systems, you would have to run those two pesticides on a GC-QQQ.

AB: Has PerkinElmer developed any specific methods related to cannabis analysis?

Yes, and we have tried to tackle what we see as one of the most challenging methods; pesticide analysis. Canada has not finalized their regulations yet, but we think we are going to see 92 pesticides and the detection limit requirements could be even lower than we’ve seen so far in the U.S. For the time being, the California list is the most challenging and we have developed the SOP [standard operating procedure) that includes all the steps from sample prep, LC-QQQ analysis, data processing and reporting. 

We also have methods for residual solvent and terpene analysis with GC-MS and potency testing on our HPLC. We have even developed a very straightforward method which utilizes microwave digestion followed by ICP-MS analysis for elemental analysis.  These methods are run on instruments that have been used for food, pharma, and environmental labs for decades with proven track records and robustness. 

AB: How can PerkinElmer’s technology and innovation help in this growing industry? 

We have a unique position in this market. If you look at the most demanding testing requirements like in California or Canada, we have every analytical instrument that a lab needs to be compliant with state regulations. Our application scientists and service engineers can go to the lab, set everything up from potency testing using HPLC, pesticides with the LC-QQQ, heavy metals with the ICP-MS, solvents, and terpenes with the GC headspace and even infrared based methods for moisture analysis. They can then train the customer and make sure that they can start running samples the next day.

Not everybody has the range of technologies necessary to meet all the unique regulations. In other words, we make it very simple for the customer. We have developed all the methods which are ‘ready to implement’. 

We are filling a big gap here. If we were to sell an instrument to a pharma lab, for example, they would probably already have 20 other similar instruments, established methods, and decades of experience running similar samples. 

In the case of cannabis testing labs, the overall experience of running these kinds of analyses is just not there. And, a lot of big labs have not entered this space yet for many reasons. That’s why we are excited to bring our experience and knowledge and help these labs conduct good analytical measurements, which is our expertise.

AB: How much involvement does PerkinElmer have in helping these labs get set up?

In summary, we can help them in many different ways depending on their needs. From setting up the lab space and installing all the instruments that are needed to meet their specific regulations to implementing the required methods and validating them and training their staff. 

You can read part 2 of the Interview here - Trends in the Cannabis Testing Industry 

Dr. Kaveh Kahen was speaking to Ash Board, Director of Editorial for Technology Networks. 

Jack Rudd

Editorial Director, Analytical Cannabis

Jack has been working in science publishing since 2015 and has been the editorial lead of Analytical Cannabis since its launch in early 2017. He holds a 1st class Bachlor's in Biological Sciences from Essex University, where he received the distinguished Eliahou Dangoor scholarship for his work. He is also a member of ASTM Committee D37 on cannabis and attends a number of annual international cannabis science conferences. Prior to the launch of Analytical Cannabis, Jack worked in editorial for our parent publication, Technology Networks, where he focused on covering developments in cancer research, genomics, and informatics.


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