Rare cannabinoids may seem like the newest passengers on the cannabis hype train, but an element of science does lie at the heart of this new trend. The cannabis industry has noticed and has begun developing ways to make these cannabinoids a lot less rare — far in advance of state or federal regulations. Laboratories must be ready to provide appropriate, rare cannabinoid potency and safety testing in an environment with rapidly-evolving standards and regulations.
What Are Rare Cannabinoids?
Most people are familiar with the cannabis plant’s primary cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But these are just two of the hundreds of cannabinoids that the cannabis plant produces. Cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) and other cannabinoids exist in such small quantities that they are referred to as “rare” or “minor” cannabinoids.
Like CBD and THC, these substances interact with the endocannabinoid portion of the human nervous system. When cannabinoids bind with receptor molecules, they alter the sense of hunger or pain. They also may impact the immune system or have an anti-inflammatory effect.
The medical case for rare cannabinoids is also like that of CBD and THC. Because substances extracted from cannabis fall under federal regulations of controlled substances, studying the medical effects of cannabinoids is difficult. And rare cannabinoids are even more difficult given how little of the substances cannabis plants contain.
However, difficult does not mean impossible. The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health issued $3 million in cannabinoid research grants in 2019. The nine recipients are studying cannabinoids’ potential to alleviate pain without the psychoactive effects. As NCCIH deputy director David Shurtleff explained:
“These new projects will investigate substances from cannabis that don’t have THC’s disadvantages, looking at their basic biological activity and their potential mechanisms of action as pain relievers.”
More recently, the cannabinoid producer, Open Book Extracts, announced in January that it will support research at Case Western University Reserve School of Medicine by supplying half a dozen rare cannabinoid isolates and customer formulations. The research will study how pure cannabinoids and various formulations impact brain cells and neuroinflammation.
The lead researcher, Professor Paul Tessar, described the “salient need for rigorous research related to the use of cannabinoids,” and added that his research lab and Open Book Extracts “look forward to evaluating the safety and efficacy of cannabinoid therapies via scientific rigor.”
How is the Cannabis Industry Responding?
Sales of CBD products have skyrocketed over the past several years, far outpacing the medical community’s ability to confirm and quantify CBD’s effects. Rare cannabinoids are following the same trajectory and the industry is acting to meet the demand. Unfortunately, extracting rare cannabinoids from cannabis plants is expensive. These substances occur in such small quantities that producers must process huge amounts of cannabis plants to extract small quantities of product. Making matters worse, cannabis plants do not produce predictable quantities of specific cannabinoids so yields can vary considerably. Lastly, relying on cannabis plants introduces the risk of pesticide, fungal or other contaminations.
But that is beginning to change thanks to genetic engineering and biosynthesis. Rather than buying bales of cannabis, these biotech companies modify the DNA inside yeast, bacteria, and algae to produce specific cannabinoids. In this manner, industrial biosynthesis yields high volumes of pure cannabinoid, making these compounds practical.
University of California – Berkeley researcher, Jay Keasling, was the first to demonstrate cannabinoid production using genetically-modified yeast strains. “The yeast that produces THC is different from the yeast that produces CBD, but they only differ by one gene,” Keasling told Scientific American last year. “The beauty of this technology is that you can swap these out for a rare cannabinoid.”
The company Keasling co-founded to commercialize this process, Demetrix, recently announced a deal to produce “metric tons” of rare cannabinoids “with the sustainability, safety and purity metrics demanded by the world’s largest consumer products companies.”
Creo, a cannabis tech startup, is a slightly further ahead and has demonstrated a 12,500-liter production capacity with commercial production slated to begin in mid-2021. In an interview with The Hill, Creo CEO Roy Lipski said that his company’s first market will be organizations that need high-quality, affordable, rare cannabinoids for clinical and commercial research.
Are Canna Labs Ready for Rare Cannabinoid Testing?
Rare cannabinoid testing will be a moving target amid evolving production methods, regulations, and consumer demand. The industry is scrambling to keep pace with the market for rare cannabinoids even as the science continues to lag. Somehow, regulators will have to keep the pace. And so will the testing community.
For example, without consistent state and federal rules for cannabinoid testing, laboratories are left to develop proprietary test methodologies. The shift from agriculturally derived cannabinoids to biosynthetic cannabinoids could help formalize things if producers provide guidance for testing their products. However, consumers may react to the “genetically-modified” nature of industrial cannabinoids and demand “GMO-free” products with the requisite potency and safety tests.
Cannabis testing laboratories that rely on rigid, difficult-to-modify, processes will see declining throughput and rising error rates that could subject labs to regulatory scrutiny. Labs need to be flexible enough to adapt to rare, new cannabinoid testing methods. Labs must also prepare for the high volume of testing this wave of new cannabinoid products will require.
CannaQA LIMS from LabLynx, Inc. is a laboratory information management system optimized for the modern cannabis testing laboratory. Pre-populated with the tests, workflows and reports needed for CBD, THC, and product safety testing, CannaQA makes your laboratory’s cannabis testing more accurate and more efficient. Easily modify workflow, adopt future industry standards, or create your own methodologies as you add new cannabinoid options to your testing services.
By consolidating sample and test data in its cloud database, CannaQA lets your labs improve productivity dramatically. Digitizing sample tracking and eliminating paper and spreadsheet processes reduces testing errors and the productivity-sapping rework that results. At the same time, automated reporting systems let you report results to your clients quickly and accurately.
Your laboratory can better serve customers in the cannabis industry by providing high-throughput, accurate and consistent testing for rare cannabinoids. To learn more about how CannaQA LIMS can improve your rare cannabinoid testing services, visit cannaqa.com or contact LabLynx at firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-LABLYNX (522-5969).
“How Rare Cannabinoids Will Impact Investing”, Cannabis Industry Journal.
“NIH to investigate minor cannabinoids and terpenes for potential pain-relieving properties”, National Institutes of Health.
“Rising High: GM Yeast Generates Known and Novel Marijuana Compounds”, Scientific American.