Two photos of men next to each other.
Martin K. Safo, Ph.D., (left) and Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., are the latest VCU researchers honored as senior members by the National Academy of Inventors. (File photos)

National Academy of Inventors names two VCU faculty as senior members for their research into treating diseases

Richard T. Marconi of the School of Medicine is developing new innovations for testing and preventing Lyme disease, and Martin K. Safo of the School of Pharmacy is targeting sickle cell disease.

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers who have dedicated their work to the treatment and diagnosis of life-threatening diseases have been honored as senior members by the National Academy of Inventors.

Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., and Martin K. Safo, Ph.D., were given the status this month by the NAI, a member organization of U.S. and international universities, governmental agencies and nonprofits. It boasts more than 4,600 members and is affiliated with more than 300 institutions.

NAI senior members are faculty, scientists and administrators who have created technologies that can someday — or already have — impacted society. Senior members also have success in patents, licensing and commercialization, and educating the next generation of inventors.

Marconi, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the VCU School of Medicine, is internationally known for his development of tests and vaccines for Lyme disease, including one used for canines that is produced by Zoetis. It has been on the market since 2016, and Marconi is working on a vaccine for humans.

His team is also studying a test for diagnosing leptospirosis, a widespread and potentially deadly infection caused by a bacteria found in the kidneys of infected animals and spread through urine into the environment. His tests use special proteins called chimeritopes, made by combining parts of different proteins to create a single protein that can detect the bacteria.

“It has been remarkably satisfying to bring new vaccines and diagnostic tests to the market that are actively contributing to the improvement of both human and veterinary health,” Marconi said. “I am truly grateful and honored to have been selected by my peers as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors.”

Safo, a professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the VCU School of Pharmacy, is largely focused on research aimed at advancing treatment for sickle cell disease, which predominantly affects Black patients. Blood cells fold into bizarre shapes (including “sickles” that give the disease its name) and clump together, causing excruciating pain, anemia and often an early death. Safo’s ultimate goal is to create an “anti-sickling” drug agent that could transform the disease into a manageable chronic condition — or serve as a functional cure.

Safo holds 17 utility patents and has five pending patents on his efforts. Much of his intellectual property has been licensed to companies for further development or commercialization, and some of his findings form the basis of IllExcor Therapeutics, a company he co-founded that is dedicated to advancing sickle cell treatment.

“This recognition inspires me to continue in pioneering biomedical advancements, particularly in sickle cell disease drug development, aiming for a transformative impact toward a manageable chronic condition or functional cure of this disease,” Safo said.

VCU is the 47th-ranked public research university in the U.S., as reported by the National Science Foundation. VCU’s $406.9 million in research expenditures for 2022 represents a 12% increase over the year prior, when the university reached the $400 million expenditure mark for the first time. The university’s sponsored research funding for fiscal year 2023 was $464 million, representing a 71% increase over the past five years.


“Drs. Marconi and Safo are illustrative of a faculty who are advancing VCU’s mission to not only generate new knowledge but to translate that knowledge into new innovations that improve the quality of life for millions of people — and in Dr. Marconi’s case, pets,” said P. Srirama Rao, VCU vice president for research and innovation and an NAI senior member. “It’s largely thanks to our entrepreneurs across campus that VCU is a Top 20 Most Innovative University. We congratulate both inventors on their recognition by the NAI and extend our gratitude to all of the honorees from our peers across the country.”

This year’s class of NAI senior members is the largest to date and hails from 60 NAI institutions in the U.S. Collectively, they are named inventors on over 1,000 U.S. patents, of which 344 are licensed technologies and commercialized products.

“This year’s class of senior members is truly a testament to the outstanding innovation happening at NAI member institutions and what happens when the academic space encourages and celebrates invention and commercialization,” said Paul R. Sanberg, Ph.D., president of the NAI. “We are proud to welcome these outstanding academic inventors to the academy and look forward to supporting and celebrating them as they continue in their innovation journeys.”

VCU’s new senior members, as well as new NAI members and fellows, will be inducted into the organization at a VCU NAI chapter event on March 20 at Maymont. The 2024 class of senior members will be celebrated at the NAI’s annual conference in June in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.