Scientists have developed a new and improved way of generating stem cells in a potential boost to research and drug screening.

A team at Edinburgh University has produced material that acts as a "tiny scaffold" to which cells can cling as they grow.

Cells are usually cultivated on expensive biological surfaces that can carry pathogens, risking contamination.

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The new material, described as a water-based gel, allows cells to multiply on a large scale and can be separated without being damaged.

Stem cells are those that have not matured into any specific type of functioning cell.

There is a hope stem-cell technology could lead to treatment for certain conditions, such as Parkinson's, by using the cultivated cells to replace diseased or defective ones.

Paul de Sousa, of Edinburgh University's Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: "This development could greatly enhance automated production of embryonic stem cells, which would improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of stem cell manufacturing."

Researchers developed the new material by screening hundreds of potential compounds for their ability to support stem cell growth.

By allowing the effective production of stem cells without the risk of contamination, the material is expected to benefit research and drug screening programmes that call for large numbers of cells.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Communications.