Nestled in the hills of the Mad River Valley, in an unassuming farmhouse, the PhytoScience Institute (PSI) team conducts research, medical cannabis and hemp testing, and cannabinoid extraction – but the group’s real passion is ensuring product safety for the state’s growing medical cannabis patient population. In this quintessential vermont setting, PSI has created a national center of excellence for cannabis research and education. PSI offers a variety of lab services, designs and implements medical outcome studies, and funds several strain and cultivation research programs.
“Cannabis is a big complex chemistry problem. If we want to contribute something to this growing industry, we need to approach our questions scientifically.” said Eric Kawka, PSI’s director of lab operations said over the hum of laboratory equipment. “Cannabis is pretty friggin’ complex.”
During a tour of the facility, Kawka excitedly runs down the chemical composition of cannabis – cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Giving us a quick-and-dirty lesson on basic chemistry, he explains that each compound reacts differently, “likes dissolve likes … a polar compound will not dissolve in a non-polar solvent.” But Kawka quickly changes gears and illuminates why this basic chemistry is important to patient safety.
“Whatever we do we have to keep in mind that this is for consumers,” he said. “People are going to be consuming these products … so now the story becomes ‘whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s patient safe – that we’re not using harsh solvents.”
This is our introduction to the supercritical fluid carbon dioxide (C02) extraction instrument, which Kawka customized to fit the firm’s needs. PSI’s proprietary extraction methodology not only allows a clean and safe end-products but also maintains the terpene profile of the products being extracted.
“Whatever we do, we have to keep in mind that this is for consumers.”
Yet, despite using clean and safe extraction methods, the only way to know for sure whether a product is safe – and legal when talking about readily-available hemp-derived CBD products – is to test them. Using advanced chromatography, PhytoScience is able to determine precise amounts of CBD and THC in any given product – but also determine whether the product contains heavy metals or pesticides that could potentially harm the consumer. Presently, the company tests 60 to 70 samples per month and has partnered with researchers at the University of Vermont Extension for a strain study. State law also allows the company to test products grown at home by registered medical cannabis patients.
“The overall goal now is to standardize a product – to make a product that is consistently of the highest quality and reproducible every single time,” Kawka said. “So we can separate out individual cannabinoids and reintroduce them to make a standardized reliable product. To create this uniform, reliable product, we focus not only on the product but on the process as well.”
Across the lawn from the farmhouse lab PSI grows several rows of industrial hemp – many of the 78 plants reach nearly 6 feet high – used for not only CBD extraction but also soil and breed research. Brendon Beer, a cultivation consultant, explains that the plot has required little-to-no irrigation in its six-week life due to the wet summer. Beer mows the grass in-between the rows with a reel lawn mower. “Minimal amendment,” he described the plot’s growing conditions.
According to Dr. Monique McHenry, a plant biologist and member of PhytoScience Scientific Advisory Board and Board of Directors, the crop is being grown to research the effects of growing practices on flowering time and how those factor into the quality and quantity of the oils produced by the plants.
“We’re going to target the phytocannabinoids and the terpenes,” she explained, adding that while they already know growing practices will, of course, have an impact on outcomes the resulting data will be important for future crops at that site and throughout the state.
But at the end of the day, for McHenry, who also serves as the executive director for the non-profit patient’s alliance, all of the R&D comes down to patient safety. “People give CBD to their children, they give it to their dogs,” she said. “You have to be sure it’s compliant and safe.”
Doni Hoffman, director of communications and business relations said PhytoScience’s involvement in Hemp Fest was a part of their broader vision to increase awareness on hemp, CBD, and how important testing is for operators and processors, because one hot crop – as they say – can doom months of farmer and producer efforts.
“It’s a nascent industry and there are a lot of misconceptions out there; an important goal for us is to educate people about the importance of testing and proper labeling and consumer safety,” she said, noting that during the event the company will unveil some of its most recent and relevant research at the event.