Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) is a common, aggressive, treatment-resistant cancer with a high recurrence rate and mortality, but the mechanism of treatment resistance remains unclear. Here we describe a mechanism where the AAA-ATPase TRIP13 promotes treatment resistance. Overexpression of TRIP13 in non-malignant cells results in malignant transformation. High expression of TRIP13 in SCCHN leads to aggressive, treatment-resistant tumors and enhanced repair of DNA damage. Using mass spectrometry, we identify DNA-PKcs complex proteins that mediate nonhomologous end joining (NHEJ), as TRIP13-binding partners. Using repair-deficient reporter systems, we show that TRIP13 promotes NHEJ, even when homologous recombination is intact. Importantly, overexpression of TRIP13 sensitizes SCCHN to an inhibitor of DNA-PKcs. Thus, this study defines a new mechanism of treatment resistance in SCCHN and underscores the importance of targeting NHEJ to overcome treatment failure in SCCHN and potentially in other cancers that overexpress TRIP13. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.