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About Sickkids
About SickKids

September 16, 2013

SickKids-led breast milk study receives prestigious grant

By Hillete Warner

A national study led by Dr. Deborah O’Connor, clinical dietitian, and Dr. Sharon Unger, staff neonatologist, has received a $2-million Programmatic Grant in Food and Health from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The study will examine the risks and costs of three different solutions for feeding very low birth weight infants: pasteurized donor human milk, a human milk-based nutrient fortifier, and protein supplements.

The five-year study – called Optimizing Mothers’ Milk for Preterm infants (OptiMoM) – will involve 25 research sites across Canada including neonatal units at SickKids, Mount Sinai Hospital, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, BC Children’s Hospital, Izaak Walton Killam Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences Centre. While feeding interventions of the infants will occur in hospital, the children will be followed to school age. Partners in the project include the World Health Organization, the United States Center for Disease Control and Health Canada.

Preterm birth is the leading cause of infant death and disability in Canada. Due to maternal illness and other factors related to preterm birth, most mothers are unable to express full amounts of breast milk to exclusively feed their infants during hospitalization. Mother’s milk has been shown to improve the health of preterm infants and, as a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the provision of mother’s milk during initial hospitalization. However, mother’s milk alone does not meet the nutritional requirements for very low birth weight infants during initial hospitalization.

O’Connor and Unger along with several researchers at SickKids and the participating centres will study the impact of providing an exclusively human milk diet and will work to establish the correct amount of protein to add to human milk in order to promote optimal development without causing undue risk.

Preventing nutritional deficiencies and providing mother’s milk are critical in mitigating consequences of preterm birth in three important areas: brain and physical development, growth and body composition, and gut health. As well as conducting standard clinical assessments, the team will use sophisticated molecular techniques to study gut colonization, which is important in protection from life-threatening infections. They will also use novel neuroimaging and body composition studies to gauge the impact of feeding interventions on brain development and growth. The study will be pivotal in setting feeding guidelines for very low birth weight infants in Canada and globally.

“I am excited about this research because I think it will make a real difference in the lives of infants born of very low birth weight,” says O’Connor, Senior Associate Scientist in Physiology & Experimental Medicine at SickKids Research Institute and Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. “We know that these vulnerable infants will grow better, be sick less often and do better at school if they are appropriately nourished. The funding for the OptiMoM program of research, and the important partnerships developed to carry out this work, will allow us to evaluate the most promising nutritional strategies and get them into clinical practice to improve the nutrition and hence health outcomes of these vulnerable infants.”

Read more about Deborah O’Connor.