Professor Jack Henion Shares Insights on Cannabis Research, Academia, and the Expanding Role of Mass Spectrometry

November 12, 2018

Cannabis analytical testing is rapidly expanding beyond cannabis quality control testing to academic, pharmaceutical, and clinical markets. Mass spectrometry is also playing a critical role in this evolution. In this month’s “Cannabis Crossroads,” Professor Jack Henion shares his insights on cannabis research, academia, and mass spectrometry, including challenges and opportunities in moving cannabis science forward.

It seems most analytical scientists have an “ah ha!” moment when they realize the incredible opportunities in cannabis science. When did you start to see these opportunities, and how did you first get involved in cannabis science?

Professor Jack Henion: I actually had two “ah ha” moments. The first was as an analytical chemist I was intrigued to see how analytical methodologies and technologies used for cannabis were not as technologically current as those in the good laboratory practice-regulated pharmaceutical bioanalytical world with which I was familiar. This coupled with the chemical complexity and diversity of the many cannabis cultivars and the importance of accurate and reliable analyses suggested that perhaps I could contribute to improving the analytical sciences used in this growing industry. However, the real excitement, or second “ah ha” moment for me, occurred when I attended the first Cannabis Science Conference in 2016 where I witnessed compelling testimonials of the very positive medicinal marijuana benefits afforded to certain disease sufferers. A common successful business model is to “find a need and fill it.” I was convinced this was an exciting new field where I could perhaps contribute to “filling a need” by providing positive contributions to supporting the scientific integrity of this new industry through high-quality analytical techniques and technology. I remain excited about working within and contributing to this fast-paced, evolving industry.

Every scientist that I meet with struggles in some way with analyzing cannabis. What hurdles did you first experience in working with cannabis and how did you overcome them?
: Our experience with marijuana plant materials to-date is somewhat limited because we do not yet have a Schedule I controlled substances license from New York State. We have applied for this license, but do not yet have it. As a result, I have focused on the analysis of hemp plant materials and products which of course must contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). I would not say that the analysis of these plant materials is particularly difficult. In contrast to my experience with parts-per-billion (ppb) and sub-ppb bioanalysis of drugs and their metabolites in biological fluids, quantifying the important cannabinoids in hemp and marijuana is relatively easy because the levels are much higher (percent levels) and the matrix is much less complex than blood or urine. In contrast, the accurate and precise quantitative determination of as many as 100 pesticides at low ppb levels in marijuana plant materials is of course more challenging. Plant sample preparation when handling large sample numbers needs some advancement, but the technologies and methods available when properly applied are not that difficult. Of course, there are additional quantitative measurements needed such as for terpenes, flavonoids, mycotoxins, and heavy metals, which in some cases require different sample preparation techniques and instrumentation. Thus, a “total analysis” of a cannabis plant sample is not just one sample preparation technique followed by an injection into one analytical system. It is a series of related, but different procedures.

You have started lecturing on cannabis and hemp at Cornell University. What were some of your takeaway messages and how were those lectures received?
I recently gave a lecture to the Cornell BioEngineering MS graduate students where I focused on the importance and benefits of collaboration and innovation in science and business development. I described the rapidly developing cannabis industry as a new frontier with many technology development opportunities for these students in their bioengineering careers. I received many inbound inquiries after this lecture, which suggests I struck a chord of interest and excitement with these students by sharing with them some industry intellect regarding opportunities in the cannabis and hemp industries.

Additionally, I recently presented two lectures at the annual Cornell Veterinary Conference at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, NY (1). There is growing interest and acceptance, especially among companion animal veterinarians for the use of cannabidiol (CBD) oils and related products to manage pain and other ailments for their “patients.” These lectures included a “tutorial” on liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS) and related techniques showing methods used for the analysis of hemp and marijuana plant materials as well as a second lecture on the comparison of analytical results from commercial veterinary oils, tinctures, and so forth versus what is listed on the labels. My message was caveat emptor since often the product label does not accurately reflect what is in the bottle. The veterinarians in the audience appeared to be very interested in these topics.


How to Cite This Article

J. Crossney, Cannabis Science and Technology 1(4), 60-61 (2018).