- Galectins are an evolutionarily ancient and widely expressed family of lectins that have unique glycan-binding characteristics. They are pleiotropic regulators of key biological processes, such as cell growth, proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, signal transduction, and pre-mRNA splicing, as well as homo- and heterotypic cell-cell and cell-extracellular matrix interactions. Galectins are also pivotal in immune responses since they regulate host-pathogen interactions, innate and adaptive immune responses, acute and chronic inflammation, and immune tolerance. Some galectins are also central to the regulation of angiogenesis, cell migration and invasion. Expression and functional data provide convincing evidence that, due to these functions, galectins play key roles in shared and unique pathways of normal embryonic and placental development as well as oncodevelopmental processes in tumorigenesis. Therefore, galectins may sometimes act as double-edged swords since they have beneficial but also harmful effects for the organism. Recent advances facilitate the use of galectins as biomarkers in obstetrical syndromes and in various malignancies, and their therapeutic applications are also under investigation. This review provides a general overview of galectins and a focused review of this lectin subfamily in the context of inflammation, infection and tumors of the female reproductive tract as well as in normal pregnancies and those complicated by the great obstetrical syndromes.