Colorado Marijuana Product Potency: Just Another Herbal Medicine
Mar14

Colorado Marijuana Product Potency: Just Another Herbal Medicine

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been watching Colorado’s burgeoning legal marijuana economy both as a natural products pharmacologist and science and health journalist and writing professor. And while the Colorado and Washington experiments are interesting to observe from afar, I’m amazed, but not surprised, by how much remains the same when it comes to the chemistry of what is essentially a botanical medicine consumer product. The Denver Post has made a very concerted effort to treat the legal marijuana market as any economically- and culturally-important area of coverage, going so far as to establishing a focused, online publication called The Cannabist. Over the past week, the section’s editor, Ricardo Baca, has been reporting on an aspect of recreational marijuana products where analytical chemistry reigns – and is putting some companies on the defensive. You won’t be surprised to hear of this episode if you read Bethany Halford’s article on marijuana product testing in the December 9, 2013 issue of C&EN. Following a less-than-effective personal experience with an edible marijuana product, Baca wondered whether the amount of THC on product labels truly reflect the abundance of the psychoactive component. In Colorado, marijuana “edibles” – technically called marijuana-infused products, or MIPs – are limited to 100 mg of THC, with a recommendation of 10 mg per serving. Baca solicited the analytical chemistry assistance of one of three state-sanctioned cannabis laboratories, Steep Hill Halent’s Colorado laboratory, directed by chemist Joseph Evans. One particular brand, Dr. J’s, had several products that tested at less than 1 mg of THC despite being labeled at 100 mg. This JPG shows some of the other results. Some products did quite well – several were spot on at 100 +/- 6 mg – while others were a bit over. Baca’s reports were picked up widely this week and, as you might expect, received some pushback from companies whose products didn’t fare that well. But he followed up with some explanations from Evans in this article, as well as some additional replicate testing of products procured from a range of retail sites. But the companies making these products had better get their act together soon. An editorial in The Denver Post on Wednesday reminded manufacturers that Colorado’s potency labeling standards will go into effect on May 1st. The variation in active principles in each product reminds me of Consumer Reports‘ herbal quality analyses that I’ve used in pharmacy teaching since back in 1996, where they first showed ginsenoside content of U.S. ginseng products varying by two logs. Steep Hill Halent also provides other product quality testing that you’d want to see in any botanical medicinal product,...

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Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?
Jul31

Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

  My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health. But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty. During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath. Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists? I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation. The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes. Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a...

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The Cinnamon Challenge: On Being Charged with #Chemophobia
Apr23

The Cinnamon Challenge: On Being Charged with #Chemophobia

As many of you are likely to have heard yesterday, a paper from Steven Lipshultz, MD, at the University of Miami appeared in the journal Pediatrics detailing poison control center reports on an adolescent misadventure called The Cinnamon Challenge. The challenge: to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon powder in 60 seconds without any liquids. The practice has been rummaging about the internet since 2001 but really took off on YouTube over the last three years. Lipshultz’s report discusses the risks of such tomfoolery, particularly due to the inhalation of cinnamon powder while one is choking. I planned to write about this practice both here and at my Forbes.com blog since I thought both chemists and the general public would be interested in the topic. I wrote the Forbes post earlier this morning and drew a series of comments from a kindly San Diego-area chemist who took issue with my facetious comparison of cinnamaldehyde (cinnamic aldehyde) to formaldehyde. While Lipshultz states that much of the acute pulmonary toxicity of cinnamon powder is likely due to the cellulose content, I submit that some damage could be due to protein adducts formed by cinnamaldehyde. Yes, yes, it’s not as dangerous as formaldehyde. But even at roughly 1% (w/w) in the powder, I hypothesize that the cinnamaldehyde could cause epithelial damage. Also note that cinnamaldehyde is not just any aldehyde but rather an unsaturated aldehyde. That makes me think of acrolein. The experiments have not been done. But one animal study has been published showing that intratracheal administration of cinnamon powder — not pure cinnamaldehyde — can cause acute lung injury in rats and trigger pulmonary fibrosis within a month. Alas, my concerns about cinnamaldehyde rubbed two commenters the wrong way and one, well, sought to chemsplain me. I was originally trained in toxicology so I know the whole Paracelsan story that the dose makes the poison (to which I’d also add “route of administration”). But do you chemists, especially those in chemical toxicology, think that I’m overreacting (as it were) to the potentially reactive nature of cinnamaldehyde in inhaled cinnamon powder? I’m willing to be corrected if I appear to suffer from #chemophobia. But I hypothesize that 1% (w/w) cinnamaldehyde can be...

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Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education
Apr15

Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance. Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history. My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison). Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following: It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth. Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example. But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university. Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments: 1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences. 2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy. 3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a...

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Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship
Mar28

Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

We’re about to close up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata to head out and convene with the PharmFamily in points north for Easter (but, thankfully, not a Nor’easter.) Before we do, I’d like to draw your attention to a short but astute editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by chemist Gina Stewart. Stewart launches her essay with a concise description of a dichotomy that’s giving all of us agita: The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs. She then talks about her career and what she considers to be the shortest postdoc on record (believe me, Gina, I know of many shorter) in the UNC-Chapel Hill laboratory of Joe DeSimone. There, the seeds were planted for entrepreurship and a fascination with the practical applications of carbon dioxide. Years later, Stewart is now CEO of Arctic, Inc., a company that uses sustainable weed control methods by selectively freezing these nasty invasive threats to biodiversity – her company site is appropriately named frostkills.com. Her experience is one example where one takes a different approach to a chemistry career than following in the traditional academic progression. The first commenter already admonished her for saying that she was pursuing an alternative career. Based on percentages, being a tenure-track faculty member is now the alternative. It’s a great read so enjoy. I was also delighted to learn that she and her husband live just west of the Research Triangle and base their company in Clemmons,...

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“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science
Nov24

“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science

[See addendum at end of post] The Guardian? Say it ain’t so! Ever wonder why the public has an irrational fear of anything labeled, “chemical”? Well. . . The book section of Guardian Science has been running a contest since 19th November to win six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2012. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker The Information by James Gleick My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe Lofty books, though I must admit to not having gotten to any yet (I’m currently stuck on Sid Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning tome, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer). To enter the contest, one need only answer four “science” questions (and, sadly, be a UK resident.). Let’s take a lookie-see at one of those questions: A mega-tip-of-the-hat the London nanochemist Suze @FunSizeSuze and Oxford’s Nessa Carson @SuperScienceGrl for alerting me to this travesty via Twitter. As Suze tweeted: Most surprising to me is that this contest has been up since Monday and will run through 29th November. That’s another five days to attract ridicule. On one hand, I jest. But this is one serious example of why the public has chemophobia. We know several superb science journalists at The Guardian so I’m certain that the book editor(s) didn’t run this quiz past them. But to let such a question go live online? To win six science books shortlisted for a major award? I hope that The Guardian will quickly remove this question and/or print a correction.   Addendum: After seeing a recent tweet from @guardianscience about their “(slightly tricksy) competition,” I suspect that the question is meant to be one in which no answer is the correct answer. If so, they’ve done a lovely job in getting the social mediasphere to talk about the contest. I still object to using this as a trick since it feeds chemophobia among some, but I can also see that value in using it for a science book...

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