ANN ARBOR, Mich. -

I have wonderful childhood memories of pressing Silly Putty onto the Sunday comic strips.

That was the one day a week the comics were in color! My sister and I would copy the funny pages over and over and stretch the images in amusing ways.

Perhaps that's why I find it so fascinating that scientists at the University of Michigan are using Silly Putty to advance stem cell research.

Growing human embryonic stem cells is tricky business and a major hurdle in the quest to treat a host of diseases.

The U-M researchers discovered human embryonic stem cells developed into working spinal cord cells more efficiently by growing the cells on a soft, ultrafine carpet made of a key ingredient in Silly Putty called polydimethylsiloxane.

To be clear, it's not as simple as stretching out the familiar putty and piling the stem cells on top.

In a specially engineered growth system, the team designed microscopic posts of the Silly Putty component. By varying the post height, the researchers can adjust the stiffness of the surface the cells grow on.

Researchers found that stem cells they grew on the tall, softer micropost carpets turned into nerve cells much faster and more often than those they grew on the stiffer surfaces. The resulting spinal cord cells were four times more pure and 10 times larger than those grown on traditional plates or rigid carpets.

The research is the first to show the "sponginess" of the environment where human embryonic stem cells are growing affects the type of specialized cells they eventually become.

Researcher Jianping Fu, a U-M assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says the findings raise the possibility of a more efficient way to guide stem cells to differentiate and potentially provide therapies for diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

Perhaps my childhood experiments with Silly Putty and the funny pages helped lay the groundwork for this big breakthrough?

OK, probably not. But I'll definitely be buying my kids some Silly Putty.