Testing labs play an essential role in cannabis regulations and consumer safety. These labs utilize mass spectrometers to measure and record the various compounds within any given cannabis product including its various cannabinoids, terpenes, and even potentially harmful microbials, pesticides, and heavy metals — and the mass spectrometers used by labs must be accurate and reliable.
Matt Noestheden is the Market Development Manager for SCIEX, which researches, designs, and manufactures mass spectrometers for research centers worldwide; with a PhD. in Analytical Chemistry, Matt focuses on cannabis, environmental, and food and beverage research projects. This written Q&A covers how SCIEX works to support its cannabis testing lab clients, the steps of getting oneself set up with a mass spectrometer, his thoughts on the state of cannabis science, and more.
Read the full interview below!
Ganjapreneur: In a nutshell, how does SCIEX help cannabis testing labs?
Matt Noestheden: Over the last six years, SCIEX has helped dozens of cannabis and hemp laboratories bring their testing services online, sometimes before their facility build out is even complete. Using the lessons learned from helping these labs, as well our 50-year strong pedigree in supporting our customers conducting similar contaminant testing for food and environmental samples, SCIEX is able to provide technical guidance and information regarding laboratory set-up and operations that is specific to the cannabis industry and the tests they are required to perform.
In developing your approach to help cannabis analysis facilities, what are some of the similarities and differences you’ve encountered, compared with other product testing niches?
The common thread amongst the food, beverage, environmental and cannabis testing spaces is the critical role that regulations play in not only defining the contaminants that require testing, but also supporting consumer safety through codified, rigorous, science-based testing programs.
However, unlike food and environmental legislation, which is frequently set at the federal level, the regulatory requirements regarding testing cannabis are set at the state level and therefore often differ from state-to-state Further complicating things is the fact that hemp (federally legal) and cannabis (federally illegal) testing legislation may differ in their testing requirements. These differences can be a challenge for testing labs that have reached the point of expansion planning as not only may the regulations be different, but the necessary analytical instrumentation needs may differ as well.
Coming from a hard science background, what has been one of the most surprising aspects of your experience with the cannabis industry?
Notwithstanding the challenges of regulatory variation from state-to-state, the most surprising thing for me has been how much we, as a collective scientific community, don’t yet understand about the fundamental science of cannabis. The comprehensive biological impact of CDB and d9-THC (not to mention other cannabinoids) and definitive investigations into their synergy with terpenes, the potential benefits of cannabis flavonoids and, from a testing perspective, the optimal methods to accurately quantitate contaminants in the myriad of commercially available products containing cannabis are all areas ripe for scientific discovery. And I think it also has been really interesting to watch our understanding of vaping science and its relationship with consumer safety evolve in recent years.
What is “mass spectrometry,” and how is it used in cannabis testing? What types of tests can be conducted with this approach?
A mass spectrometer is an analytical instrument that is capable of detecting a particular compound of interest (or hundreds of compounds, depending on your needs) with a very high degree of specificity and sensitivity. Fundamentally, a mass spectrometer measures the mass of a compound to provide that specificity while simultaneously measuring how much of that mass is present. Owing to these capabilities, mass spectrometry is the gold-standard technique for detecting and quantitating pesticides and mycotoxins. These particular contaminants typically have regulatory requirements measured in parts-per-billion – a concentration that can only be achieved with suitable accuracy, specificity and sensitivity using mass spectrometry.
Does a lab technician need training or a specialized degree to functionally operate a mass spectrometer?
The routine operation of a mass spectrometer does not require a specialized degree, provided there is a thorough inhouse training program for technical staff and a strong QA/QC process before data is released. You can also look at purchasing third party training to build staff expertise, but this may become cost-prohibitive depending on employee turnover. If, however, you move beyond routine operation into method development, troubleshooting and QA/QC functions, advanced schooling (e.g., MSc, PhD) and/or at least 3-5 years of direct experience will increase your chance of successful outcomes in these areas.
Are there different types of mass spectrometers available, and if so, how do they differ?
There are two main types of mass spectrometers that a cannabis testing laboratory may consider. The first, and most common in a regulatory testing environment, is a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer. These systems are heavily used for contaminant testing and have a well-deserved reputation for sensitivity and reproducibility. The second type that a cannabis lab might consider is an accurate mass system. These systems can do the same sort of quantitative work as a triple quadrupole, but they are designed to provide additional specificity by very accurately measuring the mass of a specified molecule(s). Because this mass is measured so accurately, accurate mass systems allow users to answer questions about their samples beyond ‘how much of compound X is in here?’. For example, you could use accurate mass systems to aid in the identification of new cannabinoids, or help confirm the identity of a presumptive pesticide finding that is being disputed.
What are some of the most important considerations for a cannabis testing lab when choosing what kind of testing equipment to use?
Any instrument vendor should be able to clearly discuss your testing needs with you and advise on the right type suite of instrumentation for your business needs. However, while testing equipment is an important capital purchase, staffing needs, sample throughput and operational costs should also be built into your ROI models. Consistently generating high quality, defensible results for customers requires highly qualified staff – not just for mass spectrometers, but for all of your analytical testing operations. So working with companies that provide you with clear guidance on not only what instrument(s) you are likely to need, but also can provide resources on your other likely needs is invaluable when setting up a new testing laboratory.
How does a lab need to prepare for the implementation of a new MS instrument in their space?
Aside from having suitable bench space to accommodate the instrument itself, there are power considerations, gas supply needs, laboratory ventilation and temperature control requirements, chemical supplier details and staffing considerations that need to be factored into a successful implementation of mass spectrometry to your testing portfolio. Recognizing that this can be a lot to work through when building out a new facility, SCIEX has developed an implementation guide specifically for cannabis labs that covers these considerations and others to help as you consider starting a cannabis testing laboratory.
Does SCIEX maintain relationships with clients after setup? What kinds of ongoing support, training, and educational resources do you provide?
Absolutely. Installation of the instrument is only the start our relationships we build with customers. To help in their successful implementation of mass spectrometry, SCIEX offers ongoing technical support for our instruments and software, as well as support specific to an application customers are having challenges with. We also understand that one of the big challenges in the laboratory industry is staff retention. To help cannabis customers build their in-house expertise and keep staff engaged and learning, SCIEX has developed a series of free webinars that discuss mass spectrometry in general and also the specifics of cannabis compliance testing. SCIEX is also working closely with several industry partners to advance the science of cannabis testing and feel very strongly that instrument vendors should support basic scientific research whenever possible.
What topics are covered in the educational webinar series, and what other information is available in the SCIEX library? Can anyone access the library?
Our cannabis resource hub includes a four-part webinar series that covers all aspects of chemical testing (i.e., not microbiology) associated with cannabis compliance testing. This includes potency, terpenes, residual solvents, pesticides, mycotoxins and the techniques used in their analysis (sample preparation, HPLC, GC-MS, LC-MS). Also included in the resource hub are documents that outline tips for analysts to avoid common testing challenges and solutions for specific state pesticide lists. The resource hub is frequently updated with new content, all of which is free to access. Our hope is that the cannabis testing industry can leverage these resources in their staff training and development activities.
What would you say is one of the biggest problems with the current state of regulations around cannabis testing in the markets where it’s legal?
The lack of federal oversight for cannabis compliance testing causes a great deal of frustration for testing laboratories. Not only during the initial phases of setting up your laboratory, but also during growth and expansion phases since you are limited to accepting samples from in-state (for cannabis) and expanding to new states requires understanding a new set of regulations.
What is one piece of advice would you give to someone planning to start a cannabis testing laboratory?
Even if your specific regulations do not require it, implementing a robust quality management system that is consistent with ISO 17025 specifications will go a long ways to ensuring you have the many of the necessary checks and balances to consistently produce high quality, accurate data that your customers can stand behind. And not to be too sneaky here by adding in a second piece of advice, but I would also strongly encourage the recruitment of high quality scientists to run your tests and manage your laboratory, as your reputation will depend on the quality of that data they are able to product.
Thanks, Matt, for answering these questions and sharing your expertise! Readers can visit SCIEX.com to learn more.