In the days following the Grenfell Tower fire, when its blackened shell first stood out like a rebuke to the London sky, many victims took refuge at the Westway Sports Centre. Nearby, Scientologists dressed in yellow T-shirts pitched trestle tables and a huge yellow tent bearing the slogan of the Scientology Volunteer Ministers, ‘Something can be done about it’. They were offering massages to survivors.
‘I tweeted it because I was appalled,’ recalls The Guardian columnist, Dawn Foster, whose photograph of the scene went viral. ‘They had a lot of leaflets and were offering personality tests. People were shouting, “Why are you here? You’re parasites.” And, “Get out — pack up your tent”. I was there for about 10 minutes and saw about 20 people come up, all of whom told them to leave or shouted at them to f*** off. They were trying to defend themselves saying there are lots of Christians and people from the mosque, why shouldn’t we be here?’
But while other organisations offered food, cups of tea and clothes, at the Scientology tent victims were given not just water but leaflets, facemasks and a massage — delivered with one finger. Sarah Harvey, senior research officer for the Information Network on Religious Movements at the LSE, explains: ‘Part of what they were doing with the “massage” is what’s called an “assist”.’ This, she says, is ‘about their understanding of the human spirit’, which is at the core of the belief system developed by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1952. The Scientology Volunteer Ministers’ website, scientologyhandbook.org, claims these ‘assists’ can ‘help a person confront physical difficulties’.
Turning up in this way may sound like a desperate attempt to recruit new members — but the church’s involvement at Grenfell is something the media relations department for the UK church is proud of. It says that a team of 50 Scientologists were on the scene for more than two weeks. ‘We sorted many mounds of donated clothes, toys, etc, boxed them up and transported several tonnes of such boxes to storage facilities for distribution later,’ writes a Church of Scientology spokesperson, going on to add: ‘We gave out gallons upon gallons of water. We sourced hundreds of facemasks… Leaflets were on display describing free online courses on tools for helping others and specifically giving disaster relief training.’ A list of individuals who were ‘helped’ with ‘assists’ (including a Catholic nun) was also provided.
In fact, says Harvey, this is ‘something they’ve done for a long time’. In the wake of the 7 /7 bombings, for example, Scientologists offered police constables tea and biscuits outside Aldgate Tube station. But the headlines caused by their sudden appearance at Grenfell are not the first that the church has attracted recently.
Earlier this year, the Evening Standard revealed that 35,000 schoolchildren had been exposed to lectures inspired by Scientology, in the form of anti-drugs talks by an organisation called Narconon. At the time, hosts — including Camden School for Girls and Brecknock Primary School in Camden — said that they were unaware of the link to Scientology and that teachers supervised the talks, which focused entirely on drug awareness. Noel Nile, president of Narconon UK, rejected criticism, saying, ‘We’re in the business of saving lives. The lectures are not concerned with religion. They’re popular and successful because they communicate a clear message which is easily understood by young people.’
But Narconon is not the only Scientology front group apparently targeting young people. In July, The Underground Bunker, the website run by American investigative journalist Tony Ortega, published an article claiming Scientology is shifting its strategy to make it all about ‘kids, kids, kids’. It pointed to a new website and social media platform allegedly set up by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an organisation affiliated with the church whose website describes its purpose as ‘providing information that a multi-billion dollar psycho/pharmaceutical industry does not want people to have’. Called fightforkids.org, the new platform promises to ‘use innovative technology to create a global movement of advocacy and engagement for the love and protection of our children’. A spokesman for the church said he was not familiar with the platform.
Last year, the head of the church, David Miscavige, 57, unveiled Scientology Media Productions, an ‘advanced, multi-platform, totally reinvented and restored motion picture and television studio’ in Hollywood. The church’s website describes SMP as ‘the nerve center spreading the church’s message to the world’. And according to The Times, in 2015, he also promised to make Scientology texts readable by more than five billion people.
Meanwhile, the church is investing heavily in real estate. This year alone, its website documents four ‘grand openings’ of vast Scientology buildings in Copenhagen, Miami, Auckland and the San Fernando Valley. According to the Emmy-winning HBO documentary Going Clear, between 2006 and 2011 the church bought 62 properties in locations across the globe. In London, outposts include an enormous church in the City established in 2006; the former office of its founder in Fitzrovia; and a shop on Tottenham Court Road, which could be mistaken for a palm reader’s from the outside but looks like a sleek airport store on the inside. It also has a luxury compound HQ at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex — once L Ron Hubbard’s personal home.
All this activity is notable since it hints at a revival after almost a decade of apparent crisis. In the UK, the church used to claim it had 118,000 followers. But during the last census in 2011, only 2,418 people described themselves as Scientologists — a figure dwarfed by the number who designated themselves Druids (4,189), Wiccans (11,766) and Jedi Knights (176,632). The church insists this number is misleading, saying: ‘Many Scientologists are also Muslims and Christians… Well over one hundred thousand UK residents happily receive our church magazines. So the census figure does not tell you very much — particularly when Scientologist was not even listed as an option. In the past year we have had more people attending our UK churches for services than at any time in our history.’
Yet, despite a starry following that reportedly includes Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss, star of The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake, recent years have brought a number of high-profile scandals involving allegations made about the church. In 2011, The New Yorker cited claims made to Florida’s St Petersburg Times about physical abuse allegedly carried out by Miscavige. At the church’s Gold Base compound in California, it has been claimed that senior members of staff were sent to ‘The Hole’ — a pair of trailers where they were made to confess day and night and fight over the right to remain. Previous claims of abuse had reportedly so concerned the US authorities that the FBI is said to have started an investigation into Scientology on grounds of human trafficking. Since religions and their practices are protected under the First Amendment, the investigation has since been dropped. The church has repeatedly denied both that any abuse has taken place and that ‘The Hole’ exists, insisting such allegations are unsubstantiated.
Then, in 2015, two films — Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and Going Clear — shone an unflattering spotlight on the organisation. The latter concentrated on the origins of the movement and the alleged experience of those, such as Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, who have since left the church. It also focused attention on the mysterious creation myth at the heart of Scientology, which it broadly characterised as: 75 million years ago an evil extraterrestrial overlord called Xenu lured his subjects in for tax inspections, froze them, shipped them to Earth, stacked them up near volcanoes and dropped hydrogen bombs on them, transforming them into ‘thetan’ souls which now get into our bodies at birth. Only L Ron Hubbard’s teachings can help us master these. And that can be a costly business, as the money needed to buy his books and invest in expensive courses can rapidly mount up. Steve Mango, an actor, told Theroux that he had spent $50,000 on Scientology instruction between 2009-2012.
This last point makes the church’s appearance near the Westway Sports Centre all the more curious. The survivors were left so destitute they made unlikely marks for a religion associated with recruiting celebrities and raising money. The church insists its purpose there was ‘helping in any way possible to somehow alleviate the suffering by those affected and their friends and families’. Others suspect more cynical motives. ‘My view is it’s not something that they would want to do, other than the fact that it’s public relations and gives them a bit of kudos,’ says Graham Baldwin, a counsellor who has been observing the activities of Scientologists for the past 25 years. ‘It’s hard to see why they would do it for any other reason.’ For their part, the church stresses that ‘the only purpose of the Church of Scientology… is to help people.’
Certainly, if its aim was to generate positive PR, it failed. West Londoners were having none of it. ‘It’s actually a disgusting way to treat vulnerable human beings on that day,’ says Yvette Williams MBE, of the Justice4Grenfell campaign group. ‘It’s not the time and place for that.’
Imagine a world in which you’re 90 years old and nowhere near middle-aged. An app on your phone has hacked your DNA code, so you know exactly when to go to the doctor to receive gene therapy to prevent all the diseases you don’t yet have. A microchip in your skin sends out a signal if you’re at risk of developing a wrinkle — so you step out of the sun and hotfoot it to your dermatologist. Every evening you sync your brain-mapping device with The Cloud, so even if you were caught up in a fatal accident you’d still be able to cheat death — every detail of your life would simply be downloaded to one of the perfect silicon versions you’d had made of yourself, ensuring you last until at least your 1,000th birthday.
This may sound like science fiction but it could be your fate — provided you can afford it. If current research develops into medicine, in the London of the future the super-rich won’t simply be able to buy the best things in life, they’ll be able to buy life itself by transforming themselves into a bio-engineered super-race, capable of living, if not forever, then for vastly longer than the current UK life expectancy of 81 years.
The science of turning back the clock has never been more advanced. In Boston, a drug capable of reversing half a lifetime of ageing in mice is about to be tested on humans in a medical trial monitored by Nasa. NMN is a compound found naturally in broccoli which boosts levels of NAD, a protein involved in energy production that depletes as we get older. Professor David Sinclair, who headed up the initial research at Australia’s University of New South Wales, doses himself with 500mg daily, and claims that he has already become more youthful. According to blood tests analysing the state of the 48-year-old’s cells, prior to taking the pills Sinclair was in the same physical shape as a 57-year-old, but now he’s ‘31.4’.
Meanwhile, Hollywood stars looking for the elixir of youth might want to keep a close eye on developments at Newcastle University where last February Professor Mark Birch-Machin identified, for the first time, the mitochondrial complex which depletes over time, causing skin to age. Mitochondria are the battery packs that power our cells — so if we want to slow down ageing we need to keep them topped up; doing so would be transformative for our appearance. In the future, Birch-Machin believes, we’ll not only be taking pills and applying cosmetics, we’ll have implants in our skin. ‘Implants will tell us the state of it — how well our batteries are doing, how many free radicals, and will inform us how we are doing with our lifestyle,’ he says. ‘You can store it, log it, have that linked to your healthcare package.’
Such medical discoveries are being translated into treatment at an unprecedented rate. The day after the results of Birch-Machin’s study were published in The New York Times, his department was contacted by nine companies hoping to turn his research into revolutionary pharmaceuticals. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, won a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres, the protective tips on our chromosomes that break down as we get older, leaving us prone to age-related diseases. Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can stop the shortening of telomeres by adding DNA — like a plastic tip fixing the end of a fraying shoelace. Today, rich Californians now use telomeres therapy to prolong the life of their pets.
Last year, in Monterey, California, the start-up Ambrosia (founded by Dr Jesse Karmazin, a DC-based physician) began trialling the effect of blood transfusions, pumping blood from teenagers into older patients, following studies that found that blood plasma from young mice can rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory, cognition and physical activity.
Dr Richard Siow, who heads up the Age Research department at King’s College London, believes we may be soon reach a significant point in anti-ageing research because of the massive amounts of money allocated by governments and charities worldwide in the hope of making a breakthrough. Indeed, according to a survey by Transparency Market Research, by 2019 the anti-ageing market will be worth £151 billion worldwide. ‘Life expectancy in many countries has already increased from 65-68 all the way through to 70, 80, 85 because people are now surviving heart disease, strokes and cancer,’ points out Siow, who has been studying anti-ageing compounds found in Indian spices and tea. ‘We are now redefining what ageing means. How can we extend that period of health so we’re not a burden?’
It is in Silicon Valley, however, that the really radical advances seem likely to be made. Freshly minted internet tycoons appear willing to pay any price to prolong their lives and a critical mass of geeks is working furiously towards understanding our biology at an unprecedented rate. Take Dmitry Itskov, the Russian billionaire founder of the life-extension non-profit 2045 Initiative, who is paying scientists to map the human brain so our minds can be decanted into a computer and either downloaded to a robot body or synced with a hologram. Or Joon Yun, a physician and hedge fund manager who insisted at an anti-ageing symposium of the California elite in March that ageing is simply a programming error encoded in our DNA. ‘If something is encoded, you can crack the code,’ he told an audience which, according to The New Yorker, included multi-billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Goldie Hawn. ‘Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end ageing forever.’
And then there’s PayPal founder (and Donald Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, who has a net worth of £2.1 billion and has reportedly invested in start-up Unity Biotechnology — which aims to develop drugs that ‘make many debilitating consequences of ageing as uncommon as polio’. Thiel has also offered funding to individual researchers, such as Aubrey de Grey, the Chelsea-born, Cambridge and California-based gerontologist who ploughed the £11 million he inherited from his artist mother, Cordelia, into founding the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation in Mountain View, which promotes the use of rejuvenation biotechnology in anti-ageing research.
Of course, the best known element of the ‘immortality industry’ is cryogenic freezing. Despite its reputation as the last resort of wealthy cranks, it remains in business; at the Alcor cryonics facility in Arizona, 149 corpses have already been preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196°C since it was founded in 1972. Worldwide there are thousands of people signed up for cryogenics services, including Alcor’s 28 clients in the UK. The service doesn’t come cheap (full-body freezing costs £165,000, while having your head cut off and frozen is around £60,000) but it has some impressive-sounding clients, including de Grey and Dr Anders Sandberg, research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.
‘It’s a gamble but it’s still much better than being dead,’ says Sandberg. He envisages a world in which the brain is paramount, so when his is revived it could be transformed into a sort of computer programme containing all of his memories of life on earth. ‘If you actually exist as software you have a lot of options. I do enjoy having a physical body but why have just one when you could have lots of different ones?’
Of course, if such experiments do come to fruition, they could have far reaching implications for our society. Already, a rapidly ageing population is placing enormous stress on healthcare and pension systems worldwide. De Grey sees the problem of over-population being cured by a dwindling birth-rate. But he says little about the impact this would have on the young.
Then there’s the question of whether we will one day be living in a world defined by gaping differences in life expectancy — where the ‘haves’ live for 10 times longer than the ‘have nots’. ‘Mortality has been the great equaliser from beggars to kings to emperors,’ says Dr Jack Kreindler, medical director at the Centre for Health & Human Performance in Harley Street. ‘If people embark on really sophisticated, targeted therapies to repair damage to their cells… I think we’re definitely entering into “them” and “us” territory.’ As projected in Homo Deus, the best-selling book of Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, Kreindler adds, we could witness ‘a schism in humanity where we have some people so bioengineered that only the very, very rich can sustain the amount of maintenance required to look after their enhancements, while others simply can’t afford to do anything but be natural.’
Nevertheless, the quest to overcome mortality continues apace. Last year, at a TEDx symposium Kreindler convened at the Science Museum, Daisy Robinton, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University, put forward the theory that ageing should be considered ‘a disease in itself.’ She described the excitement in the medical community at the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, a protein that seems to allow us to target and delete genetic mutations in our DNA. ‘Gene editing provides an opportunity to not only cure genetic disease but also to prevent diseases from ever coming into being,’ Robinton claimed. ‘To treat our susceptibilities before they ever transform into symptoms.’
If this theory became fact, dying of old age might one day seem as outmoded as being felled by one of the mass killers of the past for which we get vaccinated. If gene editing on this scale is possible, Kreindler says we have to ask: ‘Can your cells become immortal, can they live forever?’
At the Centre for Health & Human Performance, treatments may still be firmly rooted in the 21st century, focused as they are on helping athletes optimise their fitness and celebrities such as David Walliams complete gruelling challenges for Sport Relief. But Kreindler is clearly in awe of what the latest medical advances might mean for the future of the human race.
‘I don’t believe this should be only for the very rich,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to do things, don’t just do it for the billionaires, do it for the billions.’