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This week The Alchemist learns that the chemistry textbooks are about to be rewritten with the discovery of a helium compound, benzoate preservatives make a safe comeback, nanolabels boost imaging, and a new understanding of a protein target could lead to an improved malaria vaccine. A self-powered photodetector for chemical analysis and astronomy is constructed. And, finally, an award for a fingerprick test to determine whether a patient has a viral or a bacterial infection that could avoid antibiotic overuse.

Helium is usually considered to be one of the most inert of elements, reacting with nothing. However, a new theoretical study backed up with data from diamond anvil experiments suggest that under sufficient pressure this otherwise unresponsive element can form an electride with sodium, Na2He and there are hints that it might even form an oxygen-containing analog at lower pressure. Such materials have implications for understanding the evolution of stars and gas giant planets that contain vast quantities of helium and other elements under huge pressures. It might also point to a mechanism by which earth's helium may not all be lost to space.

Manufacturers of cosmetics and other products are seeing the benefits of using an old preservative, sodium benzoate, first used in the 1960s, instead of modern biocides, which have raised safety concerns recently. Consumers often shun products containing parabens, methylisothiazolinone, and imidazolidinyl urea because of alleged toxicity and skin sensitization problems perceived with these biocides. However, sodium benzoate has a proven track record as a safe and readily available preservative.

Positron emission tomography (PET) can be used to monitor the distribution and accumulation of radiolabeled nanomaterials in living subjects. Now, a team has found that graphene can be used instead of a chelating agent to act as intrinsic labeling. As such, nano particles might be exploited in biodiagnostics, such as detecting cancerous lesions or in biotherapy of such lesions or other tissues. These materials are metabolized much more slowly than conventional pharmaceuticals and so could be more effective in theranostics. They are also now known to become enriched in tumors through an effect called enhanced permeability and retention, which is another advantage.

A more effective malaria vaccine might be possible thanks to a discovery by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, UK. The team has identified the protein RH5 as a promising malarial vaccine target that could be exploited to stop the plasmodium parasite from entering human red blood cells. Previously, the team demonstrated that RH5 binds to a receptor called basigin on the surface of red blood cells. However, they have now shown how RH5 is attached to the surface of the parasite as thousands of copies of another protein, P1113 on the surface act as hooks to catch RH5, zipping the two entities together and bridging the gap between parasite and red blood cell long enough for the parasitic invasion to occur.

A new self-powered photodetector based on a gadolinium niobate and niobium-doped strontium titanate heterojunction device has been developed by researchers in China and Singapore. The device might find use in a wide range of applications from chemical analysis to communications to astronomical investigations. The inherent electric field of the interface between the materials in this device is the driving force for efficient separation of photo-generated carriers, which eliminates the need for an external power supply.

The inappropriate use of antibiotics in non-bacterial infection is a major problem the world over and an interminable problem for medicinal chemists and the pharmaceutical industry hoping to tackle the problem of drug resistance. A breakthrough skin-prick test that can distinguish between a viral and a bacterial infection could guide healthcare workers in their prescribing and reduce such inappropriate use. The test is easy to use and gives an accurate answer within about ten minutes. The test's developers Minicare HNL, a combined research effort of P&M Venge AB from Sweden and Philips Electronics from the Netherlands, received a one million euro (a little over $1m) award from the European Commission for their invention as part of the Horizon Prize for Better Use of Antibiotics.