The inner workings of a group of proteins that help to switch critical genes on and off during blood-cell production may lead to the development of new and improved cancer drugs, new research at an Australian university has revealed.

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) said one of the proteins involved is linked to breast cancer, which is the most common cancer for women and kills more than half a million women around the world each year.

Existing breast cancer treatments do not target this protein specifically, Xinhua news agency cited the ANU as saying in a statement on Wednesday.

"There are treatments for breast cancer which are in use today that are effective, but we still do not know how they work," said Researcher Daniel Ryan, from the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research.

The research is part of an international collaboration, involving ANU, the University of Sydney and The University of Pennsylvania in the US, that seeks to understand the mechanisms for gene regulation, particularly in relation to diseases such as cancer and blood disorders.

"By creating better targeted treatments for breast cancer and other serious diseases, we’ll have better outcomes for patients because we’ll be able to reduce toxicity and the risk of drug resistance," Ryan said.

The study was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.