Principal Investigators

Combining their research, clinical, milk banking, and discipline-specific strengths, principal invetigators, Drs. O’Connor and Unger, have become international leaders in optimizing human milk for VLBW infants.

Deborah O'Connor PhD RD
Dr. O’Connor is a Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and Senior Associate Scientist at the Research Institute of The Hospital for Sick Children.  She was recently awarded the Vitamin Research Chair in Human Milk and Development at the University of Toronto.  Dr. O’Connor is a recognized authority in neonatal nutrition and is frequently asked for her expert opinion in preparing national and international maternal and neonatal nutrition guidelines.  She is currently authoring the Canadian Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology Female Nutrition Guidelines and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada guidelines.  Dr. O’Connor has extensive experience in Industry and while at Abbott Nutrition, she led the Research and Development Group and international randomized controlled trials that launched one of the first human milk nutrient fortifiers enabling human milk to be used as a complete source nutrition for VLBW infants and for which she holds the patent.  Her trials enabled regulatory approval of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids to preterm formulas and a strategy to transition human milk-fed VLBW infants home.  Dr. O’Connor has wide-range experience leading randomized controlled trials and in coordinating complex multi-centered feeding trials. She holds current funding in excess of $9.2 million (CIHR, CFI, NSERC, Physicians' Services Incorporated Foundation). Besides her longstanding expertise in human milk and the feeding of VLBW infants, her team also investigates the folate status of reproductive-age women and develops strategies to prevent folate-dependent birth defects, yet avoid unsafe levels in the Canadian population.  Dr. O'Connor was the recipient of the Khursheed Jeejeebhoy award for Best Application of Clinical Nutrition Research Findings to Clinical Practice in 2015.  She has a wealth of experience in the training and mentorship of trainees; in particular, her role in the training of clinical dietitians is notable.  As the Director of Clinical Dietetics at The Hospital for Sick Children for over a decade, she developed and implemented unique training programs and created trainee positions to enhance academic, clinical and managerial expertise. She has supervised 14 undergraduate research projects and has been the primary advisor of 37 graduate students.  To focus on research, Dr. O’Connor stepped down from her administrative duties at SickKids in October 2013. Since 2009, at 50% research time, she authored 44 original papers and reviews and six web-based national nutrition guidelines.  Of original manuscripts, a third were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition or Journal of Nutrition. Other publications were in top ranked Pediatrics/Medical journals including the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Pediatrics and Journal of Pediatrics.  Dr. O'Connor sits on the executive committee of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation and the Nutrition Committee for CIHR where a key role is grant review.
Sharon Unger MD FRCPC
Dr. Unger is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, a member of the SickKids and Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institutes as well as a Neonatologist-Clinician Investigator at both The Hospital for Sick Children and Mount Sinai Hospital.  Her research and knowledge translation have focused on human donor milk for VLBW infants. Through the CIHR-funded DoMINO trial, she was able to prove the health benefits of donor milk compared to preterm formula which resulted in the opening of the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank.  She is the Medical Director for the milk bank and Co-Chair of the Advisory Committee.  She oversees the processing and distribution of donor milk throughout Ontario. She has promoted the use of donor milk and its regulation through her associations with the Canadian Pediatric Society (Nutrition Committee member), Health Canada (Expert Advisor), the US Food and Drug Administration (Expert Advisor), and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (member).  Dr. Unger holds over $6.5 million in current research funding (CIHR, Physicians' Services Incorporated Foundation) and has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles in the last five years.  She recently received recognition for her work including the Achievement, Commitment and Excellence Award by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care of Ontario (2013) and the Award for Outstanding Clinical Contribution for Clinical Excellence in Pediatric Medical Care by The Hospital for Sick Children (2013).  She enjoys training and mentoring both clinical and basic science trainees, having provided academic advisement to over 20 trainees in the past decade.  These trainees have gone on to highly successful careers obtaining positions all over the world in medicine, academia and business.  Dr. Unger’s original interest in breastmilk provision came from her great grandmother who was a midwife and her grandmother who nursed a 1.5 pound baby many years ago with expressed breastmilk through an eyedropper.  The baby grew up to become Dr. Unger’s mother.  Dr. Unger is the proud mother of three daughters who have taught her much more about paediatrics than she could have learned from a textbook.