Testing Psilocybin With Delic Labs' Eric Janusson
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Just how magic is your mushroom? With the growing recognition of psychedelic-assisted therapy driving fresh scientific investigation into psychedelic mushrooms, this is the question that many analytical laboratories are trying to answer.
Yet while many studies and early clinical trials have highlighted the potential mental health benefits of the magic mushroom compound psilocybin, there is no currently accepted method for the analysis and quantification of it.
But work is underway.
In a new Analytical Cannabis webinar held on March 8, Eric Janusson, PhD, lead chemist at the Vancouver-based Delic Labs, will present new methods being developed by Delic Labs to produce accurate and reliable results for psychedelic compound quantitation. Here's what he had to say ahead of that webinar.
Why is mushroom testing so important?
The question of mushroom testing is not so dissimilar from cannabis testing, in that an analyst has a very complex natural matrix containing some amount of active compound that needs to be measured.
“We need to make sure that if people are taking these that they’re safe and that [the mushrooms] are safe to ingest,” Janusson told Analytical Cannabis.
“The main issue here is, say we’re looking at a new type of therapy using psychedelics to assist people with things like PTSD or mental disorders like anxiety. If we’re going to give them a dose and we want to measure response or try to gauge if it’s working, we need to know how much psilocybin is in the mushrooms.”
Basic analytic tests for tryptamines – a class of compounds that include psilocybin and DMT – already exist, but the difference here is that most tests so far have been developed for law enforcement applications and not for scientific advancement, Janusson explained.
“It has been studied from a regulatory point of view, in terms of can we make sure that it’s not present in this substance, so we can make sure that it’s not getting across the border. Now we’re trying to make sure the substance is pure enough that we can legally feed it to somebody or inject them with this,” Janusson said. “That’s a much more serious regime of testing.”
Developing solutions for tryptamine analytics
In a general set of magic mushroom tests, one would expect to see a terpenes test performed using gas chromatography with mass spectrometry (GCMS) or a similar detection method.
For tryptamine analysis, this is most likely going to be facilitated by using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) equipment. This can then be combined with a detector of choice, such as a mass spectrometer (MS) or UV detector, to quantitatively assess the tryptamines present in a sample. But ensuring adequate separation using this method can be a challenge, Janusson explained.
“We don't know what the best methods to use are, so that’s what we’re currently looking at: a full suite analysis that's not just using the main heavy hitters like HPLC and mass spectrometry, which do tell us the majority of our information,” Janusson said.
“But we are looking at IRs [infrared spectra] of extracts that will separate out. We are trying to get an informatics overview of this substance because mushrooms themselves are very complex.”
Pushing the boundaries of psychedelics analysis
Mass spectrometry is one of the central areas that Delic Labs has been targeting for development in the hopes that this could lead to new and improved quantitation strategies for hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“I wrote a program that goes through and vectorizes mass spectra, their fragmentation patterns that you collect out of the instrument,” Janusson explained. “Then it compares it to a large database of two and a half million compounds of their fragmentation patterns.”
This program and accompanying database allows Delic Labs to extract component spectra that might otherwise be missed by the human eye. As the algorithm methodically moves through the database, it can generate matches for other compounds with a weighted confidence factor for researchers to confirm manually.
“It’s really amazing to see such a complicated problem that we’re able to tackle with modern methods and modern analytical methods,” said Janusson. “What we’re able to pull out of it so far has been incredible!”
While anecdotal reports and real-world data aggregation projects can provide helpful high-level information about the usefulness of certain psychedelic substances, this new kind of detailed chemometric analysis opens up a whole new dimension. Janusson sees this kind of technology being applied across natural products discovery.
“We can take a lot of this information and use it to guide,” Janusson explained. “Perhaps there are other psychedelic therapeutics that are not as long lasting, or not as impactful, or maybe more mild for somebody that we can develop out of something like psilocybin or its related compounds in these mushrooms.”
Challenges in testing
The hurdles inherent to testing hallucinogenic mushrooms will already be familiar to many of those working within the cannabis sector: a network of complex regulations, difficulty in securing quality supply, and working with materials that are highly sensitive to environmental factors.
“This material, despite it growing naturally in forests here, it’s not something that’s easy to get a hold of. It’s still highly regulated and we have to have a special license to be able to deal with it,” Janusson said.
Even once researchers manage to access a source of psychedelic mushrooms, they must be very careful with how the material is handled.
“What we found with psilocybin, what makes it a real trick to analyze, is that it is incredibly sensitive. It’s sensitive to heat, it’s sensitive to oxygen, to moisture […]” Janusson explained. “What we’re doing right now is looking at different polymorphs of crystallizing psilocybin as observing how it changes. It’s quite a strange material just on its own.”
“You have to, for example, have very careful pH control with your elements. Otherwise [...] it’s not going to separate well, and it completely throws off your quantification.”
Overcoming these challenges and creating a standard method for the precise quantification of tryptamine compounds is a crucial step that will support the expanding knowledge base on psychedelic medicine.
“We need to have a standard method of analysis. We need to have a full survey of all these other analytical techniques, which we’re working on, but this needs to be done,” Janusson said.
“We really, really need to hit this thing hard before we start feeding [psychedelics] to people and expect to get measurable results out of this kind of therapy.”