Ponicidin and oridonin are novel diterpenoids isolated from Rabdosia rubescens. We tested their effects in MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells, as representing low and high invasive breast carcinoma, with normal MCF-10A cells. Clonogenicity and proliferation in MCF-7 cells were inhibited more significantly by ponicidin than oridonin, while the reverse was observed in MCF-10A cells. Ponicidin and oridonin induced S/G2M arrest and G1/S block in MCF-7 cells. In MCF-10A cells treated with either diterpenoid, induction of apoptosis was observed. Moreover, oridonin almost completely blocked MCF-10A progression from S to G2/M phase; in contrast, ponicidin-treated MCF-10A cells showed no discernable changes in cell cycle phase distribution. Neither diterpenoid affected growth of MDA-MB-231 cells, at the dose range effective for MCF-7 or MCF-10A cells. Ponicidin-treated MCF-7 cells expressed reduced levels of cyclin B1, cdc2, transcription factor E2F, and Rb including phosphorylation at S780. Less pronounced effects were found in cells treated with oridonin. Neither compound altered cyclin D1 and cdk4 in MCF-7 cells. In MCF-10A cells, oridonin was more active than ponicidin in inhibiting the expression of cyclin B1, cdc2, S780-phosphorylated Rb, and E2F. To further investigate induction of apoptosis in MCF-10A cells, we measured changes in NF-kappaB. Decreases in p65 or p50 forms of NF-kappaB and its upstream regulator I-kappaB were found in oridonin-treated MCF-10A and not MCF-7 cells. Taken together, these results provide a mechanistic framework for the cellular effects of ponicidin and oridonin in different stage breast cancer cells.