Human cytosolic thioredoxin reductase (TrxR), a homodimeric protein containing 1 selenocysteine and 1 FAD per subunit of 55 kDa, catalyses the NADPH-dependent reduction of thioredoxin disulfide and of numerous other oxidized cell constituents. As a general reducing enzyme with little substrate specificity, it also contributes to redox homeostasis and is involved in prevention, intervention and repair of damage caused by H2O2-based oxidative stress. Being a selenite-reducing enzyme as well as a selenol-containing enzyme, human TrxR plays a central role in selenium (patho)physiology. Both dietary selenium deficiency and selenium oversupplementation, a lifestyle phenomenon of our time, appear to interfere with the activity of TrxR. Selenocysteine 496 of human TrxR is a major target of the anti-rheumatic gold-containing drug auranofin, the formal Ki for the stoichiometric inhibition being 4 nM. The hypothesis that TrxR and extracellular thioredoxin play a pathophysiologic role in chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrom, AIDS, and certain malignancies, is substantiated by biochemical, virological, and clinical evidence. Reduced thioredoxin acts as an autocrine growth factor in various tumour diseases, as a chemoattractant, and it synergises with interleukins 1 and 2. The effects of anti-tumour drugs such as carmustine and cisplatin can be explained in part by the inhibition of TrxR. Consistently, high levels of the enzyme can support drug resistance. TrxRs from different organisms such as Escherichia coli, Mycobacterium leprae, Plasmodium falciparum, Drosophila melanogaster, and man show a surprising diversity in their chemical mechanism of thioredoxin reduction. This is the basis for attempts to develop specific TrxR inhibitors as drugs against bacterial infections like leprosy and parasitic diseases like amebiasis and malaria.