Like clockwork, during the first few weeks of football practice every year, a handful of high school students succumb to heat-related deaths. But now researchers believe they are close to finding a silver bullet that could put an end to these tragedies.

An experimental therapy known as AICAR has been shown to protect animals genetically predisposed to heat stroke and may hold promise for treatment of people with susceptibility to heat-induced sudden death, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine.

AICAR at one time was labeled the "couch potato pill" for its ability to mimic the results of exercise in motionless mice.

Scientists tested the drug in mice with a mutation in the RYR1 gene, which triggers uncontrolled muscle contractions and dangerous increases in body temperature. If not stopped, the contractions cause muscles to break apart and release their contents, including potassium and proteins, into the blood. Surprisingly, research showed that these mice exhibit similar uncontrolled muscle contractions -- a classic heat stroke response -- during exposure to high temperatures or when exercising under warm conditions.

The researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that AICAR protected the mice from experiencing such contractions under heat stress.

The team found that AICAR reduces calcium leakage from RYR1, thus diminishing heat-induced contractions, muscle damage, and death.

More work needs to be done.

"Our study takes an important first step towards developing a new drug therapy that may be part of the standard treatment regimen for heat stroke in the future," said Robert T. Dirksen, Ph.D., study author and professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

No magical "couch potato" pill exists yet, but researchers are looking to use AICAR to treat certain muscle diseases and other metabolic disorders that are helped by exercise.

The heat-related death rate was approximately one per year from 1980 to 1994, but it has almost tripled to a stunning 2.8 deaths per year, according to the University of Georgia (via the LA Times). A majority of the football players who passed away were younger than 18. A majority were located in the Eastern portion of the U.S. and died during the first few weeks of practice. Most of those who died were overweight or obese.

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It's not just football players who could benefit from this promising treatment. The elderly, the military, and emergency room doctors in warm weather cities will also be helped. More than 55,000 people suffered from heat stroke between 1997-2006 and were taken to emergency rooms around the U.S.
Heat illness is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics.

In 2009 a former high school football coach in Louisville, Kentucky was found not guilty in the death of a player from heat stroke.

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