Cannabis testing ‘game-changer’

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Published July 02, 2021 1:10PM

A two-year joint research programme could pave the way for Gisborne-based medicinal cannabis company Rua Bioscience into the agritech sector.

Rua Bioscience and the University of Waikato have announced what they describe as a potential game-changing joint project investigating the application of hyperspectral technology to the cultivation and assessment of medicinal cannabis.

Commentators expect the cannabis testing industry to be worth NZ$2.5 billion by 2025, Rua Bioscience said in a statement.

“Current analytical methods present significant challenges for commercial cannabis growers. Testing requires the destruction of some product, is expensive and the turn-around of results means delays in decision-making.”

Researchers at Rua Bioscience and the University of Waikato hope real-time monitoring using hyperspectral imaging will change all that, with the potential to transform the way the global medicinal cannabis industry qualifies, assesses and manages its crops.

Hyperspectral technology involves imaging that collects and processes information from across the visible and near-infrared spectrum.

Screening methods using hyperspectral imaging are increasingly used in precision agriculture to determine optimal harvest timings, detect pests and diseases and the chemical profile of living plants.

However, due to tight legal restrictions on cannabis cultivation, little work has been done to test the technology on cannabis crops, the company said.

“The two-year proof-of-concept project aims to develop and prototype an automated, near-infrared imaging system that will enable the on-site assessment of individual cannabis plants in real-time without destroying any product.”

Rua Bioscience chief executive Rob Mitchell says it is encouraging to advance a project so well aligned with the company’s intellectual property strategy, which focuses on identifying long-term opportunities right across the medicinal cannabis value chain.

“If this technology works the way we think it will, as suggested by the pilot study, not only will we be able to revolutionise our own cultivation practices, Rua will be well-placed to develop and market world-class agritech for the global cannabis industry.

“This will take time, but we expect it to enhance Rua’s competitive position and contribute to future revenue opportunities.”

The ultimate aim of the technology is to support the cultivation of consistently high-quality crops.

Rua Bioscience chief research officer Dr Jessika Nowak says growers of medicinal cannabis often encounter variations in the quality of cannabinoid production.

“In a tightly controlled and regulated pharmaceutical environment, variations are unacceptable,” she said.

“Testing is therefore critical and needs to be extensive, but there is currently no cost-effective, commercially-viable technology that instantly assesses the consistency of an entire crop.

“We expect an advanced sensor system like this to improve crop quality and consistency and support agile, real-time plant management decision-making.”

Dr Nowak hopes such a tool will enable growers to target specific parts of the cannabis plant, such as the flower, and support the instant analysis of key growth factors, including lighting, humidity and nutrient levels.

The partnership follows work led by University of Waikato Associate Professor Dr Melanie Ooi, Unitec Institute of Technology senior lecturer Wayne Holmes and Rua Bioscience.

A collaborative study showed the technology could successfully identify structural features of the cannabis plant.

The pilot study determined the technology could further support the assessment of compounds produced from medicinal cannabis flower.

Dr Ooi believes applying this technology to cannabis would be a New Zealand first and could be a game-changer for the industry.

“It is a world-leading initiative. To our knowledge, no other group has looked at using hyperspectral imaging technology to measure quality growth factors or remotely identify plant pests, diseases and optimal harvest times across an entire cannabis crop in real-time.”

University of Waikato research and enterprise director Dr Simon Lovatt says New Zealand has a strong reputation for agritech globally and there is exciting potential for this project.

“With support of the university’s commercialisation arm WaikatoLink, we have brought together some outstanding Kiwi researchers, each with extensive expertise in agritech, to advance this project. It’s exciting to work with Dr Nowak and Rua Bioscience to develop this ground-breaking technology.”

Rua’s research team have programmed the project for the next two years. Dr Ooi’s research is partly supported by the University of Waikato and the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

The project has also received funding from Unitec.

INSPECTING: A Callaghan Innovation scientist works with hyperspectral technology. Rua hopes to develop a mobile version of this technology for use in the field in real-time without destroying any product. Picture supplied

HYPERSPECTRAL: Near Infrared (NIR) false image of Rua Bioscience cannabis buds and leaves, demonstrating the spectral reflectance technology in action. Picture supplied

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