In this episode of Call Me Cannabinoids, Pete sat down with Roni Attali, Ph.D, the lead R&D scientist for Israel’s GemmaCert. Roni and Pete discuss the differences between the cannabis industries in Israel versus the United States, the need for more standardized, accurate potency tests for cannabis, and what the future holds for cannabis testing technology.
About Roni Attali, Ph.D
Roni Attali, Ph.D, is the lead R&D scientist for GemmaCert, a cannabis tech company based in Israel. A California native now based in Israel, Roni has a rich history in the cannabis industry.
She has a strong background in organic and analytical chemistry, two degrees in chemistry, and a Ph.D in chemistry and biotechnology from Tel Aviv University. Right out of college, Roni worked as head of chemistry and project leader for Panaxia Ltd., the first GMP-approved cannabis company in Israel.
Roni gained a deep understanding of the medical market during her time at Panaxia. Next, she moved on to GemmaCert, where she was hired as the biotech company’s first employee.
Aligning Cannabis and Biotech in Israel
Seven years ago, when Roni entered the cannabis industry, the industry was still relatively low on the radar. It has been legal to study cannabis in Israel for the past 30 years; as a result of Israel’s long-term focus on research and technology, the cannabis and biotech industries are now very much aligned.
“In the U.S., most of the universities cannot research cannabis because it’s not federally legal,” Roni says.
Leading cannabis research pioneers like Dr. Raphael Mechoulam have been studying cannabis in Israel for many years. Roni also says Israel’s innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and focus on health technology has made it a cannabis industry leader.
The Cannabis Standardization Problem
According to Roni, inconsistency is a critical problem the cannabis industry faces across the board.
“One of the major problems in the cannabis industry, whether it’s the hemp or medical or recreational industry, is the problem of inconsistency in all that has to do with standardization of the cannabis plant,” she says. “And specifically, with potency analysis, because one of the problems is the non-homogeneity of the cannabis flowers.”
Roni says Cannabis is a difficult plant to test because there are so many active materials in the plant.
“We look at different flower buds that we’re taking from even the same plants, and we see different materials between the flowers themselves–which is quite problematic when we want to try to make this something that’s standardized or medicinal.
“Unlike a capsule that’s made by Pfizer, where everything is homogenized together, and you make a pill out of this, this is a plant. It’s like expecting all grapes to have the exact same sugar level.”
Because each cannabis flower is different, Roni says it’s difficult to classify the active material inside the flower. CBD and THC potency levels, for example, can differ on a fairly wide range just within the same flower. What’s more, a test batch from one farmer may vary widely from the next batch from their farm that’s packaged to sell.
THC Content: A Fixed Level or a Wide Range?
In Israel, medical cannabis labeling shows a THC range; for example, 9-16%, as opposed to the fixed percentage shown on U.S. cannabis labels. That’s a possible 7% range on a formulation’s THC potency. At that rate, cannabis labeled 13.5% THC potency could, potentially, vary up to 17.2%.
“Today, with a very much regulated cannabis industry in Israel, labs actually tell the truth,” Roni says. “And the truth is that there’s a huge range, in the same flowers in the same bag, from the same flower from the same strain. You can actually have double-dosing in the same bag.”
This reality could pose problems not only for medical cannabis companies but especially for hemp CBD, where the legal limit in the U.S. is 0.3%. The possibility of a 7% variation could push the THC limit well out of the legal range.
Even with conventional High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) potency testing, THC levels can be difficult to determine. Roni says the same cannabis batch can be tested twice through HPLC and yield slightly different results in each test–a variation that could mean the difference between a legal and illegal hemp extract product.
Non-Destructive Potency Testing with GemmaCert
Gold-standard testing methods like HPLC are considered destructive because the cannabis being tested must be destroyed in order to determine its potency. Generally speaking, destructive testing methods are costly, and producers are reluctant to test often because of the expense.
HPLC separates the molecules, then analyzes the cannabis extract on a molecular level to calculate a total percentage of THC and other cannabinoids it contains. A system of molecular weights is then used to calculate exact numbers to represent amounts of CBD and THC.
The problem, Roni says, is that a complex botanical like the cannabis flower can’t truly be homogenized.
“It’s even more complicated than just the non-homogeneity between two buds,” she says. “The bud itself is not homogeneous.
“The concentrations inside the flower button are different in different areas. Which means if you don’t homogenize a flower somehow, and you try to protect the potency level, you can get two different levels, from different areas of the flower.”
To solve this problem, Roni and the GemmaCert team worked to develop a testing device of the same name, a hybrid system that utilizes three methodologies to accurately test a cannabis plant’s potency:
- Infrared (IR) spectroscopy, which uses light to detect the plant’s molecular structure
- Visual analysis of samples via a camera that tells the IR where to sample
- Machine learning via AI, which analyzes a sample against other plants stored in a large cloud database
GemmaCert’s application is Bluetooth-enabled and can send data about the plants to your smartphone.
While Roni wants cannabis producers and industry professionals to understand the magnitude of the consistency problem, she says it can be solved. Read more about GemmaCert here.