The 2020 ElSohly Award Winners: Jiries Meehan-Atrash

April 28, 2020

Jiries Meehan-Atrash discusses his research and what we can expect from his talk “Thermal Degradation of Cannabis Extract Constituents: Mechanistic Insight” during the Spring 2020 CANN Virtual Symposium in The Second Annual ElSohly Award session on Wednesday, May 6.

Jiries Meehan-Atrash graduated from State University of New York at New Paltz with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and is now in his fourth year of a doctoral degree in chemistry in the laboratory of Dr. Robert M. Strongin at Portland State University. His research focuses on e-cigarette aerosol science with a focus on cannabis vaporizers. Here he discusses some of his research and what we can expect from his presentation on May 6.

What will your talk at the CANN symposium focus on?
Jiries Meehan-Atrash:
My talk at the CANN symposium deals with some experiments I performed recently that were one of the first times that isotopic tracing was used to study the degradation chemistry happening in e-cigarettes, and certainly the first time it’s been applied to cannabis vapes. The Strongin group is one of the few that studies the degradation of e-cigarette components mechanistically, looking at the bigger picture to help guide future efforts. Specifically, what we did here was mix THC with deuterated myrcene and limonene, then subject this mixture to dabbing and looked at what sorts of deuterated degradation products resulted. What we found was fascinating. From previous studies we knew that, unsurprisingly, dabbing pure terpenes produces very high levels of isoprene, and we theorized that other degradation products such as methacrolein and methyl vinyl ketone result from the oxidation of isoprene. Dabbing pure THC produces a similar slew of toxic degradants, which was a new discovery, and adding terpenes appears to increase the levels, but how? Dabbing the myrcene-d6/THC mix produced elevated levels of deuterated isoprene-d5, methacrolein-d5 and methyl vinyl ketone-d3, and a higher myrcene-d6/THC ratio produced more deuterated degradants. The pattern of deuterium incorporation matches previously described mechanisms for free radical degradation of isoprene in the atmosphere; the fact that the same mechanism for this happens in dabbing is completely fascinating.

What do you hope attendees at the symposium will take away from your talk?
Jiries Meehan-Atrash:
Hopefully this work will help show that it’s not worth it to go add a bunch of terpenes to a vaporizer. These terpenes are purported to have all sorts of health benefits, which hasn’t been proven, and this work shows that they may even be detrimental. People have said that the reduction in viscosity that aids wicking will reduce degradation by avoiding overheating. This work plainly shows that terpenes increase levels of toxic products by orders of magnitude, and the important part is we have a chemical mechanism to back this up, which will help predict what other additives might also be dangerous to health.

How will winning the ElSohly Award impact your research efforts or future projects?
Jiries Meehan-Atrash:
The award elevates our work, which helps us get more collaborations. Science can’t be done alone; it’s a group effort. The work I’m talking about here already involves two other research groups in addition to ours: Dr. David Sarlah’s group from the University of Illinois made the deuterated terpenes for us and Dr. James Pankow’s group helped us with the specialized collection method we used.

How did you get started with cannabis research?
Jiries Meehan-Atrash:
I have to say it was all because of Michael Kennedy, an influential human rights advocate and lawyer that was Tom Forçade’s legal representation who defended High Times magazine from those who didn’t think it was protected by the first amendment, and boy he showed them. I’ve known Michael since I was a kid; after I finished my degree in chemistry he went out on a limb for me and offered me an internship at High Times. I think I was one of the first people to work there with a science degree, and the time was coming when the cannabis world needed some scientific perspective. I started writing a lot of articles, showed my worth, and they made me their science editor, the first and I think only one they’ve ever had. I really advocated for impartial writing on the subject. All too often you have people talking about cannabis like it’s some kind of panacea, it’s not, and talking about it like that is completely unproductive for everyone. I enjoyed the writing job, but I knew I needed to get back in the lab and start doing science instead of just writing about it. I applied to Portland State University’s chemistry PhD program because of the research they did there with e-cigarettes; the fact that the e-cigarette industry hated them so much is exactly why I knew they would be a good place to get my degree from. Dr. Strongin was one of the principal investigators I met involved in the project that I proposed working with cannabis to, and he saw some great potential in extending the nicotine e-cigarette project to cannabis. Even just getting cannabis in the lab was a lot of work, I had to write a proposal to the Drug Enforcement Agency, get a federal background check, get security protocols in place, all that, but it was all worth the effort, 10-fold. It’s really great to do this research and show the limitations of cannabis vaporizers using fundamental chemistry. The hope is it’s going to prevent unnecessary lung injury for people that use this stuff, especially in youth and people with compromised immune systems and chronic illnesses.

Can you tell us more about your current research involving cannabis and what you hope to study in the future?
Jiries Meehan-Atrash:
We’re going to continue to study how THC degrades, and what factors influence that degradation. Different additives and mixtures that people are consuming are also on our radar, and we have several projects we are about to finish up that are going to get published soon.

Jires Meehan-Atrash will be presenting his talk “Thermal Degradation of Cannabis Extract Constituents: Mechanistic Insight” during the Spring 2020 CANN Virtual Symposium in The Second Annual ElSohly Award session on Wednesday, May 6.

Register for free here: https://www.cannabissciencetech.com/e-learning-tools/spring-2020-cann-virtual-symposium.