Infrared-guided chromatographic fractionation of sesquiterpene lactones from the extracts of Cousinia aitchisonii and Cousinia concolor led to the isolation of five pure compounds. A new sesquiterpene lactone, namely, aitchisonolide, and two known sesquiterpene lactones (desoxyjanerin and rhaserolide) were isolated from C. aitchisonii and two known lignans (arctiin and arctigenin) from C. concolor. The structures of these compounds were elucidated by one-dimensional and two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, as well as high-resolution mass spectrometry. The purified and characterized compounds were subjected to cytotoxicity assay. The sesquiterpene lactones desoxyjanerin and rhaserolide showed significant cytotoxic activities against five different cancer cell lines and the normal human embryonic kidney cell line. Rhaserolide was chosen to evaluate the possible mechanism of action. Western blot analysis revealed that rhaserolide could induce apoptosis in Jurkat cells via the activation of c-Jun n-terminal kinase phosphorylation. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.