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We Have Only Seen the Tip of the Cannabis Iceberg

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 29, 2018   
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“I have this slide of an iceberg in my office and there are two little peaks above the water, which is all we know about cannabis,” says Cindy Orser, PhD. “Everything else is below.”

As chief scientific officer at Digipath, Orser oversees all screening for quality, potency, contaminants, terpene and cannabinoid profiles. Of course, when it comes to cannabinoids, many of the company’s customers are only interested in one.

“Because of people’s fascination with getting high, all the focus has been on THC, but this plant has been having remarkable effects for hundreds of years when it only had 3 percent THC - it’s been used through the centuries for medicinal purposes. There’s a lot more going on here.”

Back in January, Orser’s latest research into the application of terpenoid chemoprofiles was published in the peer-reviewed journal Natural Products Chemistry & Research. It detailed a new chemical database of cannabis chemical profiles, resulting from the analyses of thousands of flower samples in the Nevada area.

Orser hopes this database is just the beginning of a long mission to characterize the lesser understood cannabinoids and terpenes, which will give us a better understand the plant’s effects on the human body.

She will also feature as a speaker at the Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo, which will take place in San Francisco, California from the 2nd-3rd April. In anticipation of the event, Analytical Cannabis caught up with the CSO to discuss her thoughts on terpenes, what we know about cannabis, and everything else below.

Looking past THC & CBD

Peering into the cannabis industry from the outside, one might think its professionals only know five letters: T, H, C, B, D. Many would even be surprised that cannabis contained anything but the two iconic compounds, THC and CBD, and these cannabinoids haven’t dominated just the conversations of cannabis, they’ve also dictated its cultivation.

“We did a large, principal component analysis and quickly found that 98.3 percent of all of these flower samples [in the Nevada area] that represented over 200 different strain names were identical by cannabinoid profile – they were all high THCA. So, no surprise there,” Orser says.

“In North America, the one trait that’s been selected for is high THC.”

But as industry investment grows, so does the market. After years at the sidelines, cannabis products rich in other compounds are finally getting some interest. Terpenes, in particular, have experienced a dramatic surge in popularity, in part due to the supposed ‘entourage effect’ with prime cannabinoids. The challenge many lab analysts now face is to learn as much about these maligned chemicals as possible to anticipate and shape demand.

Even if, as Orser confides, they may not always be the most pleasant.

“For a long time, producers wanted to get rid of the terpenes because when you concentrate them, they’re kind of unpleasant,” she says.

“Now, we see products coming back in fashion and producers adding back terpenes, sometimes at really high levels.”

This seemingly overnight explosion of interest in terpenes has been a major driver of Orser’s work. And now that terpene-rich products are flying off the shelves, despite a paucity of scientific research on their effects, terpene databases like Orser’s are more vital than ever.

“We tested lots of flowers - 2,237 individual cannabis flower samples, to be exact,” she remarks.

“We were testing for 31 analytes, so 11 cannabinoids and 22 terpenes. When we looked at the terpene data, there were three distinct clusters, which got me very interested in looking more closely at what makes terpenes responsible towards the subtle physiological effects that people realize from these different strains, even though they all have the same high THC content.”

Orser’s team then genotyped the plants and analyzed their varying terpene levels. They discovered 12 unique single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), a measure of genetic variation, which helped demonstrate the stark genetic diversity among cultivars (strains).

“We derived at least twelve unique SNPs that we can use now to let a grower know which of these three terpene groups the strain will end up falling into. It’s really just a first step,” Orser explained.

And the second?

“What I would like to do is move more into a rigorous and defined metabolomics approach, where we can expand the number of secondary metabolites we look at. I think this is just the beginning to understanding the complexity of how these different groups of molecules are interacting to result in the distinct feeling that some of these strains/cultivars can produce and to see how they’ll play out.”

Looking to the future of cannabis

Along with furthering science’s understanding of terpenes, Cindy Orser is a key industry speaker and will present at Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo: Extraction. Science. Testing, in April next year.

Her talk, The Significance of Expanded Chemovar Classification, will take place at the Hilton San Francisco Airport Bayfront on the 2nd of April.

Ahead of her presentation, Orser spoke to Analytical Cannabis on the industry’s past and what she thinks the future holds.

“For years, we’ve been trying to answer, ‘what has the impact of domestication of cannabis been?’ At first glance, it looks like there’s been some loss in chemical diversity when it comes to cannabinoids. But the good news is, because cannabinoids was the prime selection, we still have a lot of chemical diversity in these lesser secondary metabolites. But none the less, they have no physiological impact so it’s a big puzzle to take apart and I think the discovery is just starting for applications or in the medical field.”

And on the industry’s future, Orser had some encouraging words, “We’ve entered the third phase of cannabis research,” she says.

“So the first phase was describing the molecules from the plant and the second phase was realizing that the human body had its own endocannabinoid system and that’s why these plant molecules work in the body. And now we’re realizing there’s so much more. So we’re back in a new era of discovery and it’s really exciting.”

You can register here to attend Cindy Orser’s talk, The Significance of Expanded Chemovar Classification, at Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo.

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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