Galectins (S-type lectins) are an evolutionarily-conserved family of lectin molecules, which can be expressed intracellularly and in the extracellular matrix, as well. Galectins bind β-galactose-containing glycoconjugates and are functionally active in converting glycan-related information into cell biological programs. Altered glycosylation notably occurring in cancer cells and expression of specific galectins provide, indeed, a fashionable mechanism of molecular interactions able to regulate several tumor relevant functions, among which are cell adhesion and migration, cell differentiation, gene transcription and RNA splicing, cell cycle and apoptosis. Furthermore, several galectin molecules also play a role in regulating the immune response. These functions are strongly dependent on the cell context, in which specific galectins and related glyco-ligands are expressed. Thyroid cancer likely represents the paradigmatic tumor model in which experimental studies on galectins’ glycobiology, in particular on galectin-3 expression and function, contributed greatly to the improvement of cancer diagnosis. The discovery of a restricted expression of galectin-3 in well-differentiated thyroid carcinomas (WDTC), compared to normal and benign thyroid conditions, contributed also to promoting preclinical studies aimed at exploring new strategies for imaging thyroid cancer in vivo based on galectin-3 immuno-targeting. Results derived from these recent experimental studies promise a further improvement of both thyroid cancer diagnosis and therapy in the near future. In this review, the biological role of galectin-3 expression in thyroid cancer, the validation and translation to a clinical setting of a galectin-3 test method for the preoperative characterization of thyroid nodules and a galectin-3-based immuno-positron emission tomography (immuno-PET) imaging of thyroid cancer in vivo are presented and discussed.
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